Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Berried Treasure

One feature of autumn to which we all look forward is the display of berries. Ok, not all are true berries in the botanical sense but the general idea is clear. (Technically a berry is the fruit of a single flower in which the ovary wall becomes thickened and is - usually - more or less succulent, so a banana is a berry and strawberry isn't. But let's not bother!)

Dogwoods bore hundreds of fruit per bush. Kentle
Wood, Daventry. 9 November, 2015

I suppose it is fair to say that berries catch our attention when they are brightly coloured but in Kentle Wood recently it was the Dogwood, Thelycrania sanguinea (Cornus sanguinea), berries which caused me to pause; they were jet-black but their sheer profusion was striking. Again they are really drupes, but berry-feeding birds don't read many botany books.

Yew in Holy Cross churchyard, Byfield.
11 November, 2015

The fruits of Dogwood are technically edible but are best avoided; they are bitter and emetic. The 'berries' of Yew, Taxus baccata, are most definitely to be avoided although it is only the seed which has toxic properties, not the red fleshy surrounds. Birds eat the fruit with relish, the seed passing through the gut to be deposited elsewhere. 

Holly in a Byfield garden. Note the 7-spot ladybird.
11 November, 2015
Also toxic are the berries of Holly, Ilex aquifolium. A couple may be consumed with - usually - little harm, but twenty or so could prove fatal.

This species, in its many forms, is a very familiar shrub or small tree but there are some 300 species worldwide, several of which deserve to be used more widely. Quite a good collection is to be seen at Evenley Gardens, near Towcester.

Cotoneasters have such low toxicity that they may be regarded as safe - not that anyone goes around munching these mealy, insipid fruits.

The genus is not huge, somewhere between fifty and a hundred species, but they hybridise readily, making it tricky to sort them out. Something like 45 species and their hybrids are found naturalised around Britain although only one, Cotoneaster integerrimus, is a true native, being found wild on Great Orme's Head, near Llandudno.

This species, in a Byfield garden, is a case in point. Cotoneaster bullatus? It could be, but I would need to check the flowers and the partly ripened fruit to be certain. I do know, as the garden belongs to a friend, that seedlings pop up everywhere! Both birds and bees love it, so it is tolerated.

Cotoneasters are in the Rose Family, along with hawthorns, rowans, strawberries and raspberries - all bearing berry-like fruit. The viburnums are in a quite different family, the Caprifoliaceae (although recent research has led many botanists to place them in the Adoxaceae). Here Viburnum opulus, the Guelder Rose, bears its scarlet berries. These are mildly poisonous, causing gastric upsets, but again the birds take them with no ill-effects. It is closely related to the honeysuckles.

Berberis have edible berries and our native barberry, Berberis vulgaris, though sharply acid, is rich in vitamin C. It was once used quite widely for its fruit but it fell into disuse when it was found to be a host for wheat rust fungus, with the consequence that wild plants were grubbed out to the point now where it is distinctly uncommon. The plant shown, one of many garden-worthy species, is probably Berberis wilsoniae, but there are several similar species. A genus for the specialist.

And then there are raspberries. They are clearly not true berries and like their congeners, blackberries, (raspberries are Rubus idaeus and blackberries are R. fruticosus), the fruits are aggregates made up of numerous druplets. 

November 17, and my plants are still producing fruit. By now birds might have stripped the canes but an over-large population of cats hereabouts means the bird visitors are few.

Just before closing this blog, I have suddenly recalled where I first saw the catchy term, 'Berried Treasure'. It is the title of a book by perhaps my favourite wildlife author, Frank Kingdon-Ward. Frank was a remarkable plant hunter, mostly exploring in the hills of northern Burma (now Myanmar). He wrote several books of his adventures; all are out of print and second-hand copies are expensive. He was responsible for... No, I must stop or I could ramble on for ages.

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