If you love berries (who doesn’t?) and wildlife, you can’t go wrong with the addition of native berry-producing plants to your yard. Local native plants are crucial for native wildlife because they (unlike non-native plants) are the chief producers of insects and other arthropods that are essential to wild species’ survival, but some plants also provide highly nutritious, often tasty fruit that just happens to show up when nesting season slows down and when we develop a craving for fresh, seasonal delicacies.
When we usually think of fruit, we visualize those fleshy, sweet treats like apples and peaches. But botanically speaking, “fruit” refers to the seed-bearing structure of angiosperms, or flowering plants. Angiosperms’ fruit results from pollination of the flowers, and enables dispersal of each plant’s seeds. Their fruit may be dry, such as the seeds of grasses or milkweed, or they may be fleshy, as in the case of huckleberries, false solomon’s seal and fairy bells.
Most native fruiting plants that appeal to us don’t ripen until late in summer, but here are a few that produce mainly during the early to mid-summer months and naturally occur widely In the Pacific Northwest, west of the Cascades. (Those that produce fruit for late summer and winter will be covered in another post.) I’ve chosen the tastiest ones and you will have to beat the birds to them if you want a sample (but do try to share!).
Western (or Pacific or Saskatoon) serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia) has about as many common names as it does attributes. Also called shadbush or juneberry in some parts of its large range, this attractive, deciduous large shrub or multi-stemmed small tree produces fragrant, five-petaled white flowers in early to late spring that supply food for native bees, hummingbirds and butterflies. Beautiful bluish-green leaves—that provide food for many types of butterfly larvae—turn gold to reddish-brown in autumn. Delicious “berries” (botanically speaking, a pome, pictured above) attract all sorts of birds—robins, chickadees, tanagers, waxwings—as well as mammals such as raccoons, foxes, and bears. The fruit—high in vitamin C, manganese, magnesium and iron—is at its sweetest ripeness when it turns deep purple to almost black; this is usually in early summer (hence the name Juneberry), but it may occur later depending on the location.
Typically found growing in dry woodlands or on open hillsides in well-drained soil at low to mid-elevations, serviceberry plants are quite drought tolerant once established. They do best without a lot of root competition, so space them apart from other plants if possible. If you’re growing more than one, space them at least 6 to 8 feet apart. They’re a great addition to large, unpruned hedgerows, hillsides, or anywhere you want a screen or windbreak. Offer full to mostly sun in cool areas, part shade in hotter spots, and well-drained soil. Consider growing serviceberry with associate plants like Oregon white oak, Douglas-fir, Oregon grape, white spiraea, and others.
Several so-called brambles, members of the large Rubus family, offer tasty “berries,” which are are actually aggregate fruit, in this case made up of many individual fruits called drupelets which developed from multiple ovaries in a single flower. Besides offering fruit that appeals to two-legged creatures, these Rubus species are choice wildlife plants that provide for pollinators, fruit-eating birds and mammals, and browse species who consume twigs, stems, bark or leaves; their thickets also provide important cover for small animals.
Blackcap raspberry (Rubus leucodermis var. leaucodermis) isn’t your typical, cultivated raspberry, but its habit is similar: Deciduous and prickly, this vine-shrub arches up to six or seven feet tall. The stems are biennial, with fruit forming their second year. Stems that have fruited may be cut out at the base (be sure to wear gloves and long sleeves when pruning or picking fruit!).
Mid to late spring flower clusters offer nectar and pollen for native bees; the soft fruits ripen in summer when they reach a deep purple (mid-June into July in my low elevation yard). Like all wild fruits, they are very high in nutrients such as vitamin C and antioxidants (this has been confirmed by an informal survey of American robins who greatly preferred the wild to the cultivated). But not only robins: grosbeaks, jays, thrushes, sparrows, towhees and many other birds love them, as do mammals like raccoons, opossums, foxes, and squirrels. And for small animals seeking protection from predators, a thicket of prickly stems can come in very handy.
Found naturally in open forests and moist rocky areas, it seems to thrive in both sunny and shady sites. Though not fussy about soil type, it will fruit best when kept moist. Due to its potential to travel, I have mine in a huge pot so it doesn’t take over my minuscule yard. But if you have some space and don’t mind its spread and hooked prickles, by all means find a spot. It’s an attractive plant that bears tasty fruit, but it’s best when allowed to naturalize in a wildlife garden where its function will be appreciated.
Thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus) is another easy and fast growing bramble, that comes without prickles. Its large, deciduous, soft and velvety leaves may be used by leafcutter bees for nest building.
Showy, five-petaled edible white flowers appear in late spring at the tips of young stems and provide for butterflies and bees; the tasty, bright red raspberrylike fruit ripens over the summer and appeals to many bird species, as well as small and large mammals.
Since thimbleberry naturally occurs in riparian areas and in open, moist to dry wooded areas, it is tolerant of moist or dry soil and full sun to partial shade. It will spread, so like cousin blackcap, it’s best in wilder gardens.
One other summer berried Rubus shrub is salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis), that stands out in early to mid-spring with bright pink to magenta flowers that attract migratory Rufous hummingbirds on their long journey northward, as well as other pollinators. Golden to reddish-orange raspberrylike fruit ripens in early to mid-summer and attracts the usual suspects. Its arching stems (sometimes prickly) rise up to 12 feet and spread by branched rhizomes into thickets. Typically found growing in riparian areas or the dappled shade in moist woods, it does best with moist soil but may spread more slowly without it.
Last but not least, red huckleberry (Vaccinium parvifolium) is such a beautiful plant — and with delicious berries — that it deserves a post all its own.
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