By Richard Jauron
Iowa State University
The predominant colors of the home landscape in winter are white and various shades of gray and brown. An excellent way to brighten the drab winter landscape is to plant evergreens (pine, spruce, fir) and trees and shrubs that possess brightly colored fruit.
While crabapples (Malus spp.) are usually planted for their flowers, many varieties also possess attractive, persistent fruit. Crabapple varieties with red fruit include ‘David,’ ‘Donald Wyman,’ ‘Jewelberry,’ ‘Mary Potter,’ Red Jewel®, and Sugar Tyme®. Reddish orange fruit are borne on ‘Indian Magic,’ Molten Lava®, and ‘Professor Sprenger.’ ‘Doubloons,’ Golden Raindrops® and Harvest Gold® have striking yellow or gold fruit.
Hawthorns are another group of small, flowering trees that possess attractive fruit. Hawthorns produce white flowers in spring. In fall, their fruit turn red and persist into winter. Two hawthorns noted for their excellent fruit displays are the Washington hawthorn (Crataegus phaenopyrum) and Winter King hawthorn (Crataegus viridis ‘Winter King’).
Red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia) is an upright, spreading shrub. Plants produce small, white flowers in spring. Their berry-like fruit turn red in fall and persist into winter. The common name chokeberry is derived from the astringent taste of the fruit. Red chokeberry grows 6 to 8 feet tall. ‘Brilliantissima’ is an excellent fruiting variety.
Cranberry cotoneaster (Cotoneaster apiculatus) is a low, spreading shrub that grows 2 to 3 feet tall. Plants produce small, pinkish white flowers in late spring. Round, 1/3-inch-diameter fruit develop after flowering. The fruit turn cranberry red in late summer and persist into winter. Cranberry cotoneaster performs best in moist, well-drained soils and full sun to part shade.
Several hybrid evergreen hollies introduced by Mrs. F. Leighton Meserve, collectively known as Meserve hybrid hollies (Ilex x meserveae), can be successfully grown in central and southern Iowa. Hollies are dioecious. Dioecious plant species produce male and female flowers on separate plants. Only the female plants produce fruit. However, a male plant is required for pollination and fruit set. Female varieties produce berry-like fruit that turn bright red in late summer and persist into winter. ‘Blue Boy,’ ‘Blue Girl,’ ‘Blue Prince,’ ‘Blue Princess,’ China Boy®, and China Girl® are hardy to -20 degrees F. Meserve hollies perform best in moist, well-drained, slightly acidic soils. Plants are susceptible to desiccation injury from winter winds and sun. To prevent injury, plant Meserve hollies in protected areas, such as the east sides of buildings.
Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) is a native, deciduous holly. It grows 6 to 8 feet tall. The berry-like fruit on female plants turn bright red in late summer and persist into winter. Female varieties noted for their excellent fruit displays include ‘Afterglow,’ ‘Red Sprite,’ ‘Sparkleberry’ and ‘Winter Red.’ ‘Jim Dandy’ is a suitable male pollinator for ‘Afterglow’ and ‘Red Sprite.’ ‘Southern Gentleman’ will pollinate ‘Winter Red’ and ‘Sparkleberry.’ Winterberry prefers moist, acidic (pH 5.0 to 6.0) soils and will grow in sun or partial shade.
One of the first trees or shrubs to develop fall color in Iowa is the staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina). Fall foliage varies from yellow to orange to red. Staghorn sumac also produces showy fruit. Female plants produce upright fruit clusters that turn crimson red in late summer and persist through winter. Staghorn sumac commonly grows 12 to 15 feet tall. It also suckers profusely. Plants are best used in naturalized areas, slopes and low maintenance areas. Similar fruit clusters are also found on smooth sumac (Rhus glabra).
The sargent viburnum (Viburnum sargentii) is another shrub with colorful fruit. The sargent viburnum produces white, 3- to 4-inch-wide flower clusters in spring. The small inner flowers are surrounded by an outer ring of showy, 1-inch, sterile flowers. Their berry-like fruit turn bright red in late summer and persist through much of winter. The sargent viburnum grows 10 to 12 feet tall.
The American cranberrybush viburnum (Viburnum trilobum) is an excellent shrub for screens and hedges. The shrub grows 8 to 12 feet tall and produces flat-topped clusters of white flowers in spring. The fruit turn bright red in fall. The fruit are edible and can be made into jellies and preserves. Several compact varieties are available.
The brightly colored fruit of many of the aforementioned trees and shrubs do not remain throughout the winter. Extreme cold in mid-winter will eventually cause many of the fruit to turn brown or black. Hungry birds and squirrels also will devour the fruit. However, the display in early winter can be spectacular.