It’s coming up to that time of year when you step outside the back door in search of the few sprigs of holly that may still have a berry on having been overlooked by keen and eager blackbirds and the like. We seemed to have lots of holly berries this year … back in October! Whether they will still be there when I want them is quite another matter or will I need to resort yet again to the relatively convincing artificial ones that I have been known to wire on to a very dark green holly branch before now! If so, I need to be prepared as it’s a prickly business trying to squeeze my fingers between the sharp leaf points to twist the ‘berry’ into position!
Back in October, not only did we have berries on the huge holly just beyond our fence, but there were also berries on a variety of self-sets around the garden and also on our variegated holly which we planted towards the end of the garden to lighten up what is a rather dark area beneath other trees. Inevitably this sparked a reminder of the Old Wives Tale that lots of berries mean a harsh winter, but is there any truth in this?
I decided to do a bit of research and discovered that the answer would appear to be ‘no’. Like many other fruiting plants, it is the weather when the plant is in flower that makes a difference to how many berries there are in the autumn. Holly flowers early in spring and if there is a frost, then it is likely to kill off the flowers before they are pollinated and equally there is likely to be less insect life around to assist with pollination. Should the late spring / early summer be very dry, then flowers are equally likely to fall off the plant early before berries can start to form. Assuming that berries do form, then the next factor influencing whether any will be found just before Christmas is the autumn weather. A mild autumn means plenty of alternative foods for birds whereas a cold autumn means depleted insects and birds resorting to berries earlier.
Holly isn’t the only berry bearing plant outside the back door at this time of year. On the far edge of our garden, hidden behind the cherry tree and giant ivy, is a red berry bush that we haven’t really identified but we do know that it is incredibly popular with birds, especially if some more unusual visitors, such as redwings or fieldfares, turn up during a cold snap. My best guess is that this is a form of cotoneaster but it has long, apparently soft looking leaves compared to the usual smaller glossy ones. Birds such as blackbirds, thrushes, redwings and fieldfares are very dependent on berries for their winter diet so it’s really very important that we continue to plant berry bearing shrubs to maintain thriving communities.
We also have a mass of pyracantha at the far end of the garden, both yellow and orange. Every year we note that the birds prefer to eat the orange berries first and only resort to the yellow ones if they are really desperate. However, desperation isn’t entirely the reason behind this as, once again, science has a very plausible explanation for this. The colour of berries enables the plant to attract the right sort of wildlife. Brightly coloured berries bring in birds that the plants relies on to scatter its seed. Plants with less obvious berries are often more inclined to attract insects to help them spread their seed. The RSPB has a excellent article on birds and berries.
Interestingly, one of the least obvious berry plants and another seasonal favourite is ivy. Whilst we sing about the holly and the ivy, it is the holly that always gets the carols about colour. We think of the ivy as evergreen background, a useful malleable plant that enables us to weave decorative wreathes and the like, whereas the reality is a berry covered plant that is vital to sustaining insect life over winter. Bees that are active over winter are extremely reliant on ivy flowers and can often be seen hovering amidst the foliage on bright sunny mornings, whilst the blackbirds forage for the resultant berries.
Outside our front door, a large ground covering cotoneaster is currently a red carpet. In spring, this plant is a bee magnet and it is often the plant that I will turn to when wanting to count bees for the annual Friends of the Earth Bee Count. Covered in small white flowers, it is literally a hive of activity and, being positioned near the bins, makes recycling a dangerous business at certain times of year! However, in winter I have seen a large wood pigeon systematically work its way across the branches taking every berry in sight!
So fingers crossed for a few holly berries to cheer up my Christmas decorations but I shall be careful not to take too many so that the wildlife can have a decent Christmas lunch too!