Flowers & Berries: Enjoy the beautiful transformations of fall folliage

A couple of weeks ago, as I was strolling past my veggie garden, a beautiful bunch of berries caught my eye. There it was ?casually poking its head out from among the long grass at the edge of the woods. 
I was captivated by the dramatic shape of the cluster, almost six inches long, as well as its ripening berries ?from pure white to ruby red.  A quick look at the leaves suggested I was looking  at some False Solomon’s Seal (Smilacina racemosa).
False Solomon’s Seal, with a fluff of tiny white flowers at the end of a long stalk, is a familiar if somewhat mundane spring wildflower.  So I was completely unprepared for its dramatic transformation into a bouquet of spectacular berries. 
In springtime a variety of small bees and beetles love to visit these flowers, thus assisting in pollination. Months later the resulting berries will be enjoyed by a variety of birds, including ruffed grouse, as well as mice and other rodents, thus contributing to the sustenance of a number of creatures.
It is also said that, although not particularly tasty, the berries of False Solomon’s Seal are edible for humans as well. But I am certainly not about to sample these or any other unknown berries I may come across!
Of course we gardeners love plants for their flowers! It is those beautiful blossoms that catch our eyes, contribute to our overall garden pictures and sometimes, create an aroma for our noses.
But if we look at things from the plant’s perspective, those lovely flowers are merely the means to reach its desired end ?which is to ensure its ova are pollinated and grow into viable seeds. After all, it’s the seeds that will produce the next generation and thus continue the cycle of life for that plant species.
The flower is a signal, telling insects that there is nectar waiting inside.  The unsuspecting insect seeks out the nectar and then visits other flowers. As it makes its rounds, the insect obligingly passes along some of the pollen to the next flower’s ova.
Also, for the cycle of life to continue, not only must the ova be fertilized and grow into seeds, but those seeds need to be dispersed well beyond the parent plant, thereby expanding the territory of the species.
Some kinds of plants use wind to distribute their seeds ?as with the featherweight dandelion seeds or the maples’winged samara.
But many plants hide their seeds inside delicious fruits and berries, a subtle inducement for birds and mammals of all sizes to assist in the distribution of those seeds.
The animal happily eats the berry and is nourished by it. Then, after the seeds pass right through its digestive system, the animal unwittingly spreads them far and wide.  It is a symbiotic relationship ?the plant feeds the animal and the animal helps the plant disperse its seeds.
I love to include plants with lovely fruit and berries in my garden. Not only do I enjoy looking at them but they also attract lots of different birds to stop in for a feast.
As the gardening year draws to a close, our native holly, the winterberry (Ilex verticillata) is a star performer.  Although their June flowers are completely inconspicuous, the drama comes in October when the bushes are covered with shiny-red red berries.
As the leaves turn yellow the berries start to ripen. Soon the leaves fall to the ground ?leaving the bare branches completely covered in berries.  And, unless an eager crowd of robins discovers them first, those berries will remain on the bushes to create an extra-special holiday decoration.
Also, providing your soil is naturally acid, blueberries are a great garden plant. Not only do they produce the fruit that we all love to eat, but they are also a very attractive ornamental shrub which turns a delightful red color in the fall. 
Some garden plants offer us the best of both worlds ?first beautiful flowers and then luscious berries. Serviceberries, small trees that grow along the hedgerows of Vermont, are true harbingers of spring. Every year around the third week of April these little trees are covered with delicate white blossoms. And furthermore, with their diminutive size and delicate branches, they are perfect garden trees.
Serviceberries (species of Amelanchier) get their unusual name because they flower just as the ground fully thaws at the end of winter, a time when people can finally hold burial services for loved ones who died during the previous winter.
And by June those little trees are full of small fruit that entices all manner of birds to come for a meal.  Hence their other name is Juneberries! Finally each fall, as the leaves of the serviceberries turn a lovely red, the season comes to a close.
Of course, everyone loves crab apples!  For ten days in May each crab apple tree is a mass of flowers, in shades from pure white to deep pink, depending on the variety.
But, before you buy a new crab apple for your garden do a little research on the different varieties: in addition to beautiful flowers some of them also have lovely fruit. The handy reference book of trees and shrubs for Vermont gardens, Landscape Plants for Vermont, (available through the UVM Master Gardener website) lists 45 different varieties of crab apple including the color and size of their fruit. 
Like the serviceberries, our native Wild Raisin Viburnum (Viburnum cassinoides) can be found growing wild along our hedgerows. And it too makes a delightful garden shrub. The Wild Raisin Viburnum has fluffy white flowers in late May which are nice enough. But what I really enjoy are the clusters of fruit ?like small grapes ?in late summer. And then something magical happens ?the ripening fruit is discovered by the visiting cedar waxwings, who find it delicious. Thus the fruit is spread abroad by these lovely little birds.
There are many types of viburnums, and for a number of years they have been plagued by the Viburnum Leal Beetle. But the good news is that research has shown that our native Wild Raisin Viburnum is among the least susceptible varieties of Viburnum. And indeed my shrubs (I have three) have never been attacked whereas a nearby American Cranberry Bush (Viburnum trilobum) is among the most susceptible and, after several successive years of defoliation by the beetles, has now died. 
Judith Irven and Dick Conrad live in Goshen where together they nurture a large garden. Judith is a Vermont Certified Horticulturist and teaches Sustainable Home Landscaping for the Vermont Master Gardener program. You can subscribe to her blog about her Vermont gardening life at www.northcountryreflections.com. Dick is a landscape and garden photographer; you can see more of his photographs at www.northcountryimpressions.

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