Berry Pleasing

A few years ago Altona Forest was larger than it is now. That was before the streets cut through and neighbourhoods crept closer and into the trees. The natural forest edges and transition areas met bulldozers. Many food-producing native wildflowers, shrubs, and trees disappeared along the newly-built boundaries. Birds and other wildlife still look for their favourite berries near Altona’s safety and nesting sites.

In the neighbourhoods around Altona Forest, we can use our suburban gardens to support this ecosystem with a little know-how. Providing a variety of native berries is especially important in spring and fall to ‘refuel’ migrating songbirds.

Early fall is an excellent time to plant trees and shrubs – summer’s heat and burning sun are past, the weather is milder, there is rain, the soil is warm, and in some cases the plant will have enough time to ‘settle in’ so that it can flower the very next year. In late summer you will find less selection in garden centers, but deep discounts make it the least expensive time of year to add a berry shrub to your garden.

There are native berry bushes, shrubs, and trees in many sizes that can fit in any urban yard or small space. Some (like blueberries) even perform well in containers. Think native – and ask your garden center for Ontario-native varieties.

Here are five space-efficient, easy-to-grow, native-berry shrubs/trees that are beautiful and draw birds to your garden. Using the formal two-name taxonomy will help you select the native plant and not a similar foreign species:

  1. Serviceberry: A multiple-stem large shrub or small tree, serviceberry is a year-round star performer. In spring a burst of white flowers dazzle you before the first leaves make their debut, in summer red and burgundy-coloured berries add colour to the garden and draw local birds to a feast, in fall the leaves turn yellow and bright orange, and in winter the elegant branching pattern is painted with snow. Serviceberry grows wild in Altona Forest and is indigenous. Once established, it needs almost no maintenance. Serviceberry provides early summer berries. (Look for amelanchier canadensis )
  2. Nannyberry: This native is easy to grow in most soils and in sunny to shady locations. Nannyberry is actually sweet virburnum (virburnum lentago or virburnum vetteri) which provides berries and bright fall colour for the gardener. This smaller tree reaches 30ft and has lustrous leaves, clustered white summer flowers, and a brown scaly trunk. While the flowers are not glamorous, they are voluminous and will draw butterflies and other pollinators. Nannyberry needs little care yet produces colourful berries that attract birds, including flycatcher, flicker, cedar waxwing, grosbeak, and redpoll.
  3. Dogwood: Dogwood is a whole group of native shrubs and trees. Some trees produce lovely white or pink bract flowers in spring. The larger pagoda dogwood trees have bunches of tiny white flowers which draw pollinators, and leaves that turn crimson in fall. The most common dogwood to see in a smaller garden is the clump shrub variety – with red or yellow stems that become brighter in early spring and offer colour during the winter. The berries are favoured by many birds. While dogwood exists in Altona Forest, it has been drastically reduced by development. Many dogwood species provide mid-summer berries. (Look for cornus sericea bushes or cornus alternifolia trees)
  4. Hawthorn: Do expect hawthorn trees to have thorns – long spikes will appear on the twigs and branches. If you don’t mind it’s defensive nature, then the hawthorn has much to offer: pretty white flowers in spring, glossy saw-toothed leaves in summer, cherry-sized berries that become red or orange and last into winter, and beautiful autumn colour. Hawthorns have many varieties with different sizes and colours of berry. Native, hardy Ontario varieties (like crataegus crus galli or Crataegus punctata) often grow 25ft tall and offer haws (berries) consumed by birds and wildlife into the winter months. I know of only two hawthorns currently in Altona Forest – but one is easy to spot at the fence just left of the Summerpark entrance.
  5. Mountain Ash: This elegant tree or large shrub has delicate foliage and offers the gardener bunches of white flowers in the spring followed by clusters of red or orange berries ripening in the late summer and fall, and yellow-orange foliage as the leaves drop. Mountain ash require very little maintenance and are not affected by the emerald ash borer since they are not technically an ash. Bees and pollinators are drawn to the flowers while robins, squirrels, and cedar waxwings love the fruit. In winter, the berries brighten the snowy landscape until the next wave of birds arrive. This hardy Ontario tree is not found in Altona Forest but is native to the Great Lakes region; look for the North American tree sorbus americana or shrub sorbus decora.

Here’s an interesting coincidence – these native berry trees all bloom in spring/early summer, have white flowers, and three of the five are from the rose family.

Small flowering trees can be the little black dress of the small-space garden; a simple, versatile, multi-season, staple that really delivers!


Hawthorn on the edge of Altona Forest

Creating a beautiful, safe, sustainable, berry-producing garden for wildlife is easy. It’s also a fun and rewarding project for gardeners and families alike. With just a little effort you can make a difference for local wildlife, protect the environment and local ecology with native plants, and reap the benefits of having a yard with blooms, butterflies and birds. For more information about how to begin, consult TRCA’s Healthy Yards Program and Canadian Wildlife Federation’s Backyard Habitat Program.


Pagoda dogwood or nannyberry? Hidden off Altona’s main trail – catches your eye only when it’s in bloom

Resources ~ Begin Your Reading Here

There are many more native types of the berries than I have listed above. There are also more than one native variety of the berries I’ve listed. For a full list consult books and Ontario websites that list native plants and trees with the latin taxonomy. You can begin with CWF’s Native Plant Encyclopedia or Evergreen’s Native Plant Database

Providing Food for Wildlife

Bird Gardens

TRCA’s Healthy Habitat

Get Your Garden Certified with Canadian Wildlife Federation’s Backyard Habitat Program

Finding Plants: You can find the common berries I’ve listed at many garden centres. However, if you are looking for native plants and those that are grown locally, here are some specialty suppliers:

Canadian Planting Zones (We are in a woodland zone – Zone 6 (Canada) and Zone 5 (on US charts)

Berry Pleasing ~ © 2015 Natasha G

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