Alamosa Flowers: Berries for wildlife

Happy New Year! It seems we have a lot of birds in Alamosa this winter. We have no snow cover and temperatures have been higher than usual. This year, December temperatures have been over 50 deg. F on eight days. Most other highs have been in the 40’s. Average highs in December for Alamosa are all in the 30’s.

I hope the birds are getting enough to eat. I often think of crabapples and rose hips as winter food for wildlife, but recently I’ve been thinking about berries.

I have a snowberry shrub (Symphoricarpos albus) that had beautiful white berries until the middle of November. As I walked around my garden today, I realized the snowberry is being taken over by another, more aggressive shrub that I can’t identify in its winter state. I would like the snowberry to thrive so entered a note into my “check it out” list for next spring to remove some of the encroaching shrubs.

According to the Wiki website, the common snowberry is an important winter food source for various birds but is considered somewhat poisonous to humans. It is one of the few berry-bearing plants I could find that should work well in the San Luis Valley (SLV). It tolerates sun, shade, heat, cold (down to zone 1), and drought.

I’m going to look into getting a coralberry (Symphoricarpos orbiculatus or orbiculatus) shrub. According to the “Sunset Western Garden Book”, it is cold tolerant (down to zone 1or 2) and resembles snowberry, but bears white or pink-tinged flowers that are followed by small purplish red fruit. The Prairie Moon Nursery website says it tolerates medium-dry soil, the flowers provide nectar for bees, and the berries provide winter food for robins. One website says the plant is sometimes referred to as buckbrush since it’s a favorite of white-tailed deer; another says it is deer-resistant! Oh, my!

Coralberry suckers and has dense foliage, so I’ll look for an area I want to cover – probably along the fence line amongst other hardy shrubs such as lilac (Syringa vulgaris) and chamisa (Chrysothamnus nauseosus). It appears to have dense foliage down to the ground so I think it would be hard for weeds to compete. Coralberry is native to the eastern and central US as well as Ontario, Canada and Northeastern Mexico.

Unfortunately, most berries prefer moist, acidic soil while SLV soil tends to be dry and alkaline. One of my favorite shrubs that loves moisture is Saskatoon serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia). I first saw them in Canada -- great huge hedges of them. Sadly, mine finally died. I enjoyed the flowers and the berries. The birds loved the berries, too! My best guess as to its demise is that it was in an arid area of the garden. If I try again, I’ll make sure to plant it in a moister bed.

Another shrub that didn’t do well after a few years in my garden was the nannyberry (Viburnum lentago). Again, I think my two specimens needed more water. They tolerated our cold winters, but seemed to need more moisture in the growing season. I loved the large white blooms and the birds loved the berries. Fruits are edible and often used to make jams and jellies – mine were rather bitter. According to the Missouri Botanical Garden (MBG) website, nanny goats apparently feed on the ripe berries – more so than billy goats – hence the common name.

By the way, any of the plants I mentioned that I’ve grown are shown on the website.

Holly (Ilex spp.) is probably the most celebrated of the winter berries – the vast majority have red berries. I would love to have some in my garden. Has anyone had luck growing any in the SLV? If so, please email me: [email protected]!

Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) is rated down to zone 3 and is native to Eastern North America. I don’t know if would do well at our elevation, however. The MSB garden website says, “the species is infrequently sold in commerce because of the many excellent cultivars which generally produce showier flowers and larger, more abundant fruit.” It does have female and male plants. reports that the Berry Magic Holly variety from Monrovia is self-pollinating. It is listed as zone 5, not hardy enough for the SLV. Another Monrovia variety is Winter Red rated down to zone 2. However, it needs male and female plants and consistently moist soil.

Cotoneasters are often cited as berry-producing plants that attract birds. However, my Peking contoneaster (Cotoneaster acutifolia) is not attractive to any animals! It retains its berries year after year. I enjoy looking at them!

“Did you know Santa is three times a gardener? He hoes, hoes, hoes.” My take on various Santa jokes.