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Bounty of Berries Bedazzles

A bumper crop of winter berries has appeared in gardens thanks to favourable weather conditions earlier in the year, says the Royal Horticultural Society - but they may not last long. Heading into winter, the charity predicts that the abundant display is likely to attract hordes of hungry wildlife who could strip the shrubs in days should harsher weather conditions set in.

In the four RHS Gardens, top-performing trees and shrubs include Malus (crabapple), Sorbus (rowan or mountain ash) and Callicarpa (beauty berry), alongside festive favourite Ilex (holly). "It has been a really good year for berries and the Winter Walk at Wisley has an excellent show of Ilex, Callicarpa bodinieri 'Imperial Pearl' and the very cool and rare Lonicera ligustrina var. pileata 'Blue Pearl', a shrubby honeysuckle," says Peter Jones, Garden Manager at RHS Garden Wisley. "However the berries in the garden can literally disappear overnight, so I'd suggest people get out to enjoy the display while they can!"

Hungry birds are already taking advantage of the bounty in areas of the country which have seen colder weather in recent days. "There's lots of hedgerow fruit this year so in one sense you might anticipate wildlife has more than enough to eat," explains RHS Senior Horticultural Advisor, Helen Bostock. "But as we go through winter and these wild food sources become depleted, gardens will become a focus for hungry birds and other animals, especially in any cold snaps when the ground is too frozen for hunting for invertebrates."

This may be good news for amateur ornithologists, however, who could have an opportunity to spot some more unusual birds visiting their gardens. "Winter thrushes start arriving from northern Europe and Scandinavia at this time of year," says Helen. "These are the redwings and fieldfares which can be seen in large, chattering flocks. Less common but a real treat if you get to see them are waxwings, again a bird which comes across the North Sea to our shores for winter foraging.

"The redwings are busy taking from the hawthorn berries down my lane at the moment. I'm keeping a close eye on our big holly which is dripping in red berries in case they turn their attention on that after the hawthorn. If so, I'll be rushing out there with the long-handled loppers to grab a few sprigs for my Christmas wreath before they're all gone!"

This winter's spectacular displays of fruit may be explained by two successive summers of good growing conditions, according to RHS experts. "With the right combination of temperature and moisture at the time of fruit set, it's been an excellent year for trees like hawthorn and the berrying shrubs such as euonymous," says Jonathan Webster, Curator of RHS Garden Rosemoor in North Devon. "Here at Rosemoor, the birds are particularly fond of the berries on our National Collection of holly, especially Ilex aquifolium 'Pyramidalis', but they're really spoiled for choice this year with a great crop on the crabapples too, particularly Malus transitoria, M. hupehensis and M. baccata var. mandshurica."

RHS Chief Horticulturist Guy Barter adds: "As holly flowers best on one-year-old wood, we might be seeing the effects of the good growing weather in 2019 when much new timber was produced. The same is probably true of other berried shrubs. There were some stinging late frosts in the south-east this year but they don't seem to have harmed berrying shrubs in the same way that some orchards have been afflicted, possibly because shrubs are grown in gardens where there is more shelter, flower later or flower after leaves are expanded sheltering the flowers."

"The weather this year seems to have perfect for this group of plants," agrees Robert Brett, Curator of RHS Garden Hyde Hall in Essex. "They flowered well in spring, had no trouble from late frosts and the recent wetter weather will have helped to swell their size too. We've got huge quantities of fruit on our crabapples, euonymous and callicarpa in the Winter Garden, Queen Mother's Garden and Hilltop Garden, giving a really colourful display as we transition from autumn into winter."

Paul Cook, Curator at the most northerly RHS Garden, Harlow Carr in Harrogate, says: "Our hollies are always full of colourful berries at this time of the year' but what has surprised us this autumn is our Sorbus - they don't usually do quite so well in the wetter soil conditions we usually have at RHS Garden Harlow Carr. However, the prolonged periods of dry weather that we've seen this year seem to have given them a boost and they are absolutely laden with fruit right now, along with our euonymous and crabapples. We have noticed that the local wildlife have been moving in on the berries though, thanks to the colder weather we've seen over the last week - so the spectacle might not last long!"

(Below: Georgia Palmer, 20, a gardening apprentice tends to the Viburnum betulifolium at RHS Wisley Garden, Surrey. Image: RHS and Oliver Dixon)

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This story was published on: 27/11/2020

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