On a recent walk at the edge of the Giacomini Marsh in West Marin, I was surprised to notice several blooming berry bushes: twinberry, snowberry and blackberry. Nearby, we found flowering elderberry, a medium-size tree covered with white blossoms. This is songbird habitat, not surprisingly, and on some plants birds, blossoms and fruit were visible. My thoughts turned to gardens and to the possibilities of incorporating some of these native, berry-producing plants into our domestic landscapes. Could any of these interesting plants work in our gardens? They can, and also contribute to our goal of creating more sustainable gardens.
A quick inventory later, I discovered I already had huckleberry, coffeeberry and strawberry doing nicely in my garden, plants I have found satisfactory in a landscape that includes non-natives like azaleas and camellias in shady areas, and lavender and choisya in sunny places. Our other berry-producing natives include pink-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum), attractive along a partially shaded fence, and Oregon grape (Berberis pinnata ssp. pinnata) with berry-like, blue-black fruit. Plants that flower and produce berries attract birds and bees in profusion.
Since not all native berry bushes are suitable for most urban gardens, I set about to identify those that work best in our climate. Here is the result of my informal survey, based on a review of the nearby woods and creeks, what works in my garden, and several hours with various books on gardening with native plants. One could add others, but these seemed the most promising.
Huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum) is one of my favorites. In summer, our woods are filled with berry-laden huckleberries, especially along hiking trails. It's a treat to stop and pick a few sweet, blue/black berries on a warm morning. An evergreen shrub, it is attractive year round and flourishes in my garden, growing to 8 feet in partial shade. I find my huckleberries do best if I prune them lightly to shape them, giving them a slightly domestic character that goes well with ground covers and ferns around them. Tuck pruned branches into a simple vase for a striking indoor arrangement. Plant in groups or as an informal hedge along a wall; one by itself will appear lonely.
A workhorse of our garden is coffeeberry (Rhamnus californica), which serves as both background planting and as a wide, informal hedge along the driveway and parking area. A handsome, evergreen plant with dark green leaves and reddish to black berries in summer, it will grow to 12 feet in sunny conditions. We keep ours pruned to 5 to 6 feet. Slow to start, it suddenly grew like crazy, requiring some pruning to shape the rapidly growing branches. Spring flowers attract so many bees that the bushes hum noisily at midday. Coffeeberry is highly adaptable, grows well in sun, partial shade or a combination, including deep shade. Once established, it needs little water and has few pests.
Twinberry and blackberry are more problematical in a domestic garden. Twinberry prefers moist soil along creeks and marshes and blackberry, as we know, has severe thorns and is highly invasive. A better choice is creeping snowberry (Symphoricarpos mollis) in the honeysuckle family. It is a deciduous shrub that works well when planted under the dense canopy of a coast live oak. It prefers dry shade and will form a 6 to 24 inch, light green, mounding ground cover, with tiny (1/8-inch) bell-shaped flowers and white (1/4 inch) berry-like fruit in winter. Snowberry is easy to grow and a find for gardeners looking for attractive, dry shade plants.
We tend to overlook attractive, native trees that flower and produce berries. Two that work in and around our garden are madrone (Arbutus menziesii) and elderberry (Sambucus racemosa var. racemosa). Twelve years ago we planted three madrones in partial shade and they have thrived, enough so that I recently planted three more nearby. These graceful, evergreen trees with attractive bark, spring flowers and fall berries require little maintenance and only occasional summer watering. They are now 25 feet tall. Elderberry is fairly abundant on the Inverness Ridge and two grow at the edge of our property. In the honeysuckle family, elderberry is a large deciduous tree with light green, pinnately compound leaves that are a handsome foil for its white, 2- to 8-inch, flat-topped blossoms, composed of hundreds of tiny creamy flowers. By summer, these white blossoms turn to scarlet berries which, unfortunately, are toxic. Another similar species, Western elderberry (Sambucus mexicana), produces blue-black berries that are edible and make splendid jam and wine.
A third evergreen, berry-producing small tree or large shrub (8 to 15 feet) suitable for urban gardens is toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia), more common in Southern California but adaptable to warmer parts of Marin County. Once established (they may need staking when young), it is drought resistant and treasured for its bountiful crop of red berries in winter.
This is the time of year to watch for berry-producing vines, shrubs and trees. They are all around us, and some of them make excellent additions to our gardens.
The University of California Marin Master Gardeners are sponsored by UC Cooperative Extension. For questions about gardening, plant pests or diseases, call 499-4204 from 9 a.m. to noon, and 1 to 4 p.m. weekdays, or bring in samples or pictures to 1682 Novato Blvd., Suite 150B, Novato.