Winter Berries for What Ails You

Dec 8, 2009

I know I’m not alone, because I see it in others at Trader Joe’s and Vroman’s. That ashen, weary look that comes from doing your darndest to keep up with life’s demands. Plenty often, our heads are down, eyes focused on the mountain of work blocking the emergency exits. Sure, on the one hand, it’s kinda swell to be the rodent turning the Big Wheel. After all, not every rodent has a quality plastic treadmill. Lots of rodents these days have no wheel at all and still spend days running in circles.

A riot of Toyon red in Altadena

A riot of Firethorn red in Altadena

So after the white-hot spotlight fades on our gratitude for having a Big Wheel and a pile of work that’s bigger than ever (thanks for nothing, reverie), physical pain sets in. Hours, days, then weeks at desk, computer or drafting table invite lumbar woes, a stiff hip and ice-pick headaches infused with silvery, mercurical memories of quiet pastimes.  (Ah, strolls through Garfield Park, espresso in the courtyard at the Central Pasadena Library, and avoiding that hyper-efficient Sierra Madre meter maid with good planning and correct change!)  So Tylenol is consumed, grindstone and deadlines are met, and then at last, freedom. When my own unyoking finally came this past month, after a Depression era-style dance marathon of deadlines, I took my pretzel-twisted neck and hunched spine and hobbled through my neighborhood in search of the season’s finest winter berries.

One popular evergreen shrub, often producing berries by late summer, is Firethorn (officially Pyracantha), whose dramatic masses of orange to red (and even yellow) fruits are hard to miss, even from a speeding car. Pyracanthas, originally from the eastern Mediterranean to China, have glossy, deep-green leaves that are one to four inches long and rounded or oval at the ends. All bear dull white flowers and fruit on spurs produced on last year’s wood. Prune after flowering, if at all. Many Pyracanthas look best if allowed to grow in a natural form, and different varieties reach 4 to 15 feet tall, most taller than wide. Hedging generally produces fewer berries, especially if trimmed during the winter.

Frank McDonough of the L.A. County Arboretum reminds us, “Pyracantha is very susceptible to fireblight,” as are all members of the rosacea family, including apple, crabapple, quince, pear and roses. “And in this area,” he adds, “Oak root fungus is a problem, too.” McDonough says, if you’re determined, “Plant dwarf varieties, which are easier to contain. And keep some Aliette or Agri-fos handy,” both of which are foliar sprays to treat the fireblight bacteria, Erwinia amylovora. They are also toxins, which require caution in use and disposal.

Toyon berries and its glossy, jagged-edge leaves

Toyon berries and their jagged-edge leaves

Chris Barnhill, curator at Fullerton Arboretum, raises several good points about Firethorn. “I have nothing against Pyracantha,” Barnhill says, “but they’re weedy. We can’t seem to get rid of them.” True, birds do transport their seeds, which germinate freely. Considered only mildly noxious in California, the state of Texas classifies Pyracantha an invasive plant. Barnhill suggests sticking with Mediterranean flora, more suitable to our climate, to please even those with an East Coast sensibility. Says Barnhill, “Transplants to California would probably be overjoyed to see the spectacular color of native plants.” Barnhill offers Toyon, for example.

According to California Native Plants for the Garden by Bornstein, Fross and O’Brien, Toyon is the only California native to be called by its original Native American name, dubbed by the Ohlone tribe. Its profusion in the Los Angeles hills and resemblance to European holly also inspired the name “Hollywood.” Commonly known today as Christmas Berry, California Holly, or Heteromeles arbutifolia to horticultural purists, Toyon is a member of the rosacea family. Yes, that can mean fireblight. So sterilize tools often when pruning and remove infected limbs at first sign of die back. Do not compost these, but burn if possible.

This otherwise unfussy evergreen reaches 6 to 10 feet tall as a shrub or 12 to 25 feet as a small tree, spreading equally wide. Its thick, leathery, dark-green leaves have jagged, spiny margins, and masses of small white flowers appear in spring. Blooms are followed by pea-size red berries that are toxic until ripe, and attract birds who become dizzily drunk after ingesting. They recover quickly, even without help from the coffeeberry plant (Rhamnus californica). This shrub favors sun to part shade, thrives in any soil and requires very little water once established. Its foliage and berries make cheery winter decorations, too. For a little extra dazzle, Barnhill suggests the yellow-berried Toyon cultivar “Davis Gold.” Excellent examples of Toyon can be seen at many public gardens, including the Charles F. Lummis Home, 200 E. Avenue 43 in hip Highland Park. Call for hours to plan your visit, 323.222.0546.

For even more red berries to think about, McDonough suggests Natal Plum (Carissa macrocarpa), a fast-growing, upright to unpredictable, easy-to-grow evergreen shrub that’s native to South Africa. Carissa’s three-inch, shiny leaves and two-inch-diameter star-shape, fragrant white flowers recall Star Jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides). Like Star Jasmine, Carissa oozes a milky sap when cut. Wicked spines on branch and branch tip remind us of Firethorn’s nastier characteristic, though, and relegate Natal Plum to areas with limited foot traffic. Its abundant 1.5-inch fleshy red fruit is edible when ripe (before ripening it takes like Latex) and often used for jellies. Carissa does well in full sun, in any soil, and takes little to moderate water once established. “Boxwood Beauty” is a compact, thornless variety, to two feet high.

With these textures, colors and characteristics locked in my memory bank, I’m walking a bit taller. I dodge rain puddles one day and apply sunscreen the next while the Southern California winter skies roll by. I can’t wait to get outside tomorrow in a jacket or shirtsleeves to count the winter berries that are showing off their splendid colors.



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