The wonderful world of berries

Just the other day, as I was getting some dried Goji berries out to add to the breakfast cereal, it occurred  to me how very versatile berries are: whereas summer berries like blueberries, raspberries and strawberries are a treat for our palate and good for health too, fall and winter berries, with little doubt, are a feast for the eyes which we look forward to all year long.

This is the time when brilliantly colored berries adorn our trees and shrubs, giving a glimpse of the beauty of winter. So significant are berries that many gardeners consider them with similar regard as flowers or color of the fall foliage when adding a tree or a shrub to the landscape. Berry-laden hollies are truly spectacular, in addition to being a haven for our feathered friends by providing them a gourmet meal. By the way, hollies generally bear male and female flowers on separate plants; so, to ensure berry production, one needs to check the gender of the plants at the time of purchase and plant a pollinator as well, a mistake I have made, hence few or no berries on our holly plants. My disappointment, however, has been made up by two shrubs we planted not too long ago: the Red Chokeberry, which produces red ones, and the Beautyberry that bears small purple berries.

A time-tested evergreen shrub that never fails to delight everyone is Nandina domestica, fondly known as the heavenly bamboo; equipped with two much sought-after assets – rich burgundy foliage and bunches of bright red berries – nandinas are one of the most carefree shrubs for any landscape.  In fact, during holiday season, I am forever harvesting branches along with clusters of berries of our nandina shrubs to accent the mantle, dining table arrangement, highlight the lamp post decorations, or for that matter, any place that calls for color and cheer. In fact, skilled wreath makers and floral designers are always on the lookout, especially during the holiday season, for such berry-bearing greenery.       

The versatility of berries is almost unending, so much so that is easy to fall in love with these wonders of nature. Being one such victim, I cannot end this column without mentioning a not-much-known berry called Goji berry, Lycium barbarum. Though we have been consuming Goji berries for a while, I had never seen them under cultivation until last summer when I was at Randolph Farm at Virginia State University to attend a seminar, where rows and rows of plants were growing in high tunnels, thanks to the leadership of Dr. Reza Rafie. And, not just plants, but each single one was loaded with bright orange jewel-like berries dangling from healthy branches. So impressive was the sight that I have since then acquired two plants from a local garden center which I have opted to grow in containers. Hopefully, they will make it through their first winter.

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