Winter-Fruiting Trees for Lasting Beauty

‘Winter King’ green hawthorn has persistent fruits that are loved by cedar waxwings.

Now that fall has passed, it is a dismal thing to look out the window and see no color. But, this does not have to be the case if you plant beautiful trees that still offer bright colorful fruits to the garden in winter. The first one everybody thinks of is holly, but there are several more that fit the bill.

American Holly

American holly has a classic holly look and the trees can become very large.

American holly (Ilex opaca, USDA Hardiness Zones 5-9) is an eastern native tree that can survive in some shade but grows and looks best in an open area with full sun. The pyramidal tree can reach up to 50-60 feet tall, so find a big place in your yard or garden to plant it.  It has leathery evergreen leaves and bright red berries that turn from green to red in fall that stay on through the winter. A caveat is that it is a dioecious tree, which means that plants have either female or male flowers, never both. That means that both male and female plants are needed to produce fruit. One of the oldest and best varieties is the heavy-fruiting,  ‘Jersey Princess‘, which was bred at Rutgers University. It fruits heavily and has a neat, narrow habit. A good pollinating partner is ‘Jersey Knight‘. Be aware that the leaves are very prickly, so wear thick garden gloves with gauntlet sleeves when handling them.

Yaupon Holly

Smooth-edged leaves and pretty winter berries make this a fine holly tree for southern gardeners.

The more southern sun-loving yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria, Zones 7-9) has smooth-edged leaves and female trees develop copious red berries that remain on the stems through much of winter. It is a native species that naturally exists in open coastal woods from Virginia down to Florida and across to Texas. Wild specimens can reach up to 45 feet high, on rare occasion, but generally do not exceed 25 feet. The golden-berried ‘Anna’s Choice‘ is a lovely female variety reaching 15 feet that bears lots of sunny fruits against its fine, scalloped leaves. ‘Will Flemming‘ is an unusually upright narrow male yaupon holly tree that reaches 12-15 feet. Its spring flowers will pollinate female trees, like ‘Anna’s Choice’.

American Wahoo

American wahoo is a spectacular tree that deserves more attention in landscapes and gardens.

American wahoo (Euonymus atropurpureus, Zones 3-10) is a relative of the invasive non-native burning bush (Euonymus alatus), but in fall this non-invasive eastern native shows off exceptional pinkish-red fruits with orange inner seeds as well as purplish-red leaf color. In spring it bears purplish flowers. The multi-stemmed tree can reach up to 20 feet and looks best when planted as specimen trees in a sunny, open lawn. Well-drained, fertile soil is needed. Some stem pruning must be done to encourage an open trunk. Birds love the fruits.

Green Hawthorne

‘Winter King’ offers one of the most spectacular displays of red fruits is any tree.

The green hawthorn (Crataegus viridis, Zones 4-7) is a small native tree that exists across much of the eastern United States. Wild specimens have large thorns up and down stems, so approach this tree with caution.  ‘Winter King’ is an improved variety with spectacular red fruits in winter, profuse white flowers in spring, very few thorns, and silvery bark. The scarlet fruits (called “haws”) resemble very little apples, and technically they are edible, but most gardeners leave them to the birds. (European hawthorns (C. monogyna) are a bit larger and often used to make jams and jellies.) In fall, the leaves turn purple and scarlet, and the brilliant red fruits last well into winter.  ‘Winter King’grows 15 to 20 feet tall, adapts to any kind of well-drained soil and is drought tolerant and disease resistant.


Birds love the jewel-like fruits of crabapples.

There are literally thousands of flowering crabapple varieties. The best flower and fruit beautifully and are very disease-resistant. One that comes highly recommended by my daughter is ‘Prairifire’ (Malus ‘Prairifire’, Zones 4-8), a highly disease-resistant variety first introduced in 1982 and developed by Dr. Daniel Dayton of the University of Illinois. It displays some of the most stunning hot-pink spring blooms against purplish-red spring leaves that turn dark green in summer and bronze-red in fall.  Its fall crabapples turn bright red and are held into winter until birds pick them off. The tree reaches about 20 feet tall, needs full sun, and resistants many foliar diseases that attack crabapples. Plant it in full sun for best growth and flowering.

Click here for a full overview of how to properly plant a tree. Its steps will ensure that any tree you plant will grow beautifully in your landscape. Rich amendments, such as Black Gold Peat Moss and Garden Compost Blend, will ensure their roots will grow deeply in the first year.

Any one of these trees, or all of them, will brighten your winter landscape. I hope this has given you some plants to buy when planning for any garden additions for next season.

How Do I Stop Birds From Eating the Garden Seeds I Sow?

Protective screen will stop birds from eating the garden seeds.

“How do I stop birds from eating the garden seeds? We have 16 raised beds in our community garden, and we are trying to use 1-2 of them to grow from seeds only. Our problem is that birds keep picking at the seeds almost as soon as we sow the seeds. Do you have any suggestions for covering the beds or any other method to keep the birds away? We are sowing bush and pole beans, peas, radish, and squash seeds, among others.” Question from Jenifer of St. Petersburg, Florida

Answer: Birds not only consume certain vegetable seeds, but some, like starlings, also like to snip back tender new seedlings. Some vegetables you list must be directly sown in the ground, but others are better started in pots and planted as plants, which can save some headaches.

Stop Birds From Eating the Garden Seeds

Cucumbers, melons, pumpkins, squash, and zucchini fare better if they are started in 4-inch pots and then planted after they have put forth several sets of leaves. They are quick to germinate and grow fast, so it is a trouble-free effort. Just be sure to place the seeded pots in a sunny spot protected from birds and keep the soil moist.  Other vegetables, like tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, lettuce, kale, and cabbages, grow best if they are started indoors and planted as strong plant starts. (Please click here to learn how to grow tomatoes from seed, and please click here for our favorite lettuces and how to grow them.) Seeds that are best planted in the ground are another story.

Beans, beets, carrots, corn, peas, turnips, and radishes are just a few seeds that are best sown directly in fertile ground. There are a couple of ways to keep birds from eating your seeds. Large-seeded plants, like beans and peas, can be planted 1 to 2 inches down in the soil (Click here to watch a video about our favorite beans and how to grow them.) Beets, carrots, and radishes should be planted closer to the soil surface. I always cover my newly sown seeds with a layer of Black Gold Garden Compost Blend to encourage faster germination. Here are steps to keep marauding birds from eating the garden seeds you sow.

  1. Cover the raised beds with floating row covers or insect (and bird) barriers until they have germinated. Sheer row covers allow sunlight through but keep birds and pests from reaching the beds. Just be sure the seeded rows are well covered until seedlings germinate and really take off. In this scenario, it may pay to lay down drip hose along the rows, so you don’t have to worry about watering from above. I prefer row barriers over bird netting because they are more effective, and birds cannot get trapped in the fabric.
  2. Bird deterrents come in all forms and Bird B Gone sells loads of products to scare birds away, from flashing stakes to scare balloons and hawk or owl decoys. Take your pick. These do work but not as consistently as well-placed barrier covers.

In my opinion, row covers are your best option, and you can use them year after year. One final note: peas and radishes are cool-season crops that grow poorly in heat. They are best grown in fall and winter in Florida.

I hope these solutions help. Have a great vegetable gardening season!

Jessie Keith

Black Gold Horticulturist


Can You Suggest Native Winter Shrubs that Feed Birds?

American cranberrybush (Viburnum opulus var. americanum) is one of several great native shrubs for birds.

“What native bushes (VA) can I plant that will provide winter food for wild birds?” Question from Dagmar of Virginia

Answer: The fruits and nuts of many Mid-Atlantic native shrubs feed birds in winter. Here are some of the best shrubs with fruits and nuts for winter birds.

Native American Shrubs with Fruits for Birds.

Some of the best red-fruited shrubs for birds are winterberry (Ilex verticillata), American cranberrybush (Viburnum opulus var. americanum), and chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia). The pretty witherod (Viburnum nudum) has berries that turn from bright pink to blueish-purple, and arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum) has deep-blue berries. The vivid purple fruits of American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) are also lovely and loved by birds. These highly landscape-worthy native shrubs have beautiful winter fruits coveted by many songbirds.

Native American Shrubs with Nuts for Birds.

A good nut-producing native shrub is the American hazelnut (Corylus americana). Plant this large shrub along the margins of any spacious garden or landscape. The edible hazelnuts they produce are just as tasty to homeowners as they are to birds and other wildlife. We also recommend planting sunflowers in the garden. Let their seedheads dry and winter birds will flock to them. (Click here to learn more about nuts for edible landscaping.)

Check out your local garden center for varieties of these shrubs. Most cultivated forms have even more fruits than wild types. Expect the berries to persist from early to midwinter, so you can appreciate their landscape color and wildlife value.

Happy winter gardening!

Jessie Keith

Sunflowers for Bees, Song Birds, and Garden Splendor

Honeybees and native bees rely on sunflowers for pollen and nectar.

Annual sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) are pure floral gold. Their immense blooms have an almost storybook quality. They track the sun, creating a glowing warm basin of golden pollen and sweet nectar to draw bees and butterflies. Abundant oil-rich seed heads follow, feeding both wildlife and humans. For Native Americans, sunflowers symbolized courage and were cultivated as the “fourth sister,” along with corn, beans, and squash.

Sunflower History

Native Americans first cultivated sunflowers nearly 3000 years ago.

Sunflowers are North American natives, with natural populations extending from southernmost Canada to Central Mexico.  Native Americans first cultivated them nearly 3000 years ago, using them for food, dye, medicine, and ceremony. Colonists quickly adopted the flowers—growing them for food, livestock forage, and beauty. Today, the nearly one-billion-dollar sunflower industry has them farmed and manufactured for oil, food, birdseed, cut flowers, and gardening.

Cultivated sunflowers can be traced to two population centers in the central and eastern US, according to research. From these, hundreds of cultivated varieties have arisen with diverse heights, flower sizes, and colors ranging from gold to bronze, orange, burnished red, near black, pale yellow, and ivory. Vibrant new varieties serve the seed, cut flower, and gardening markets, but some of the best selections are Native American heirlooms—offering qualities that sustained peoples for thousands of years.

Sunflowers and Wildlife

Sunflowers feed bees, butterflies, and birds. (Image by Franziska Meyer)

Honeybees and native bees rely on annual sunflowers for pollen and nectar, along with butterflies and other nectar feeders. Mature seed heads become songbird feeding stations—attracting finches, nuthatches, cardinals, and titmice—while also attracting many small mammals. Wildlife prefers large-headed varieties, which can be cut, dried, and saved to feed birds through winter. Avoid growing pollenless sunflower varieties for bees, because they offer less food value to these pollinators.


Sunflowers for Seed

Hungry birds begin to devour seed heads as they develop!

Mammoth Grey Stripe’ is the best-known seed sunflower! Its huge golden blooms are supported by strong stems able to hold the weight of the fully developed seed heads. The massive plants reach 10-12’ in height, and the heads of grey-striped seeds reach up to 12” across. The comparable ‘Mammoth Russian’ is slightly larger with golden petals and striped seed hulls. It reaches 14’ in height and bears 12-14” heads. ‘Giant White Seeded’ is another good seed producer with pure white seed hulls produced on 12” heads. Provide all large sunflowers with lots of space and expect many colorful goldfinches to visit as their heads develop. (Cut or cover any heads you want to save for winter birds!)

Native American Heirloom Sunflowers

‘Hopi Black Dye’ has black-hulled seeds used for natural dye. (Photo courtesy of High Mowing Seeds)

Native American sunflower varieties have unique traits valued by the tribespeople that saved them over generations. The black-hulled ‘Hopi Black Dye’ has large flowers with yellow petals and black-brown centers. The near-black seed hulls were used by the Hopi people to dye wool and baskets.  A great Native American variety for eating is ‘Arikara‘. First collected on the Louis and Clarke expedition, these golden sunflowers were grown by the Arikara people (in present-day Missouri) for their massive seed heads that can reach 16” across. The seeds of this variety also germinate under cooler conditions than many other sunflowers.

Sunflowers for Cutting

‘Sunrich Orange Summer’ is a great pollenless variety for cutting.

Sunflowers produce copious messy pollen, which is why pollenless varieties are preferred for cutting gardens. ‘Pro Cut’ has pollenless chocolate-brown centers and golden petals (much like a giant black-eyed-Susan) that look superb in arrangements. Children love ‘Teddy Bear’, a compact (2-3′), fully double, golden variety with minimal pollen. Choose ‘Sunrich Orange Summer’ for its yellow petals and pollenless brown centers. The deep burgundy ‘Prado Red‘ has almost black centers and bears many pollenless flowers perfect for cutting through summer.

Sunflowers for Gardens

Autumn Beauty mix produces lots of pretty flowers that shine in the garden.

Choose shorter or colorful, long-flowering, multi-branched sunflowers for a big garden show. The well-branched Autumn Beauty Blend sunflowers have long-flowering bold blooms in shades of gold and burnished-red. The 5-6’ plants are perfect for large borders. The ivory and pale yellow flowers of ‘Italian White’ are small, delicate, and borne in profusion on 5-7′, well-branched plants. Both perform well in big garden spaces!

There are lots of super-compact varieties good for small-space gardening. Pick the 1-2′ ‘Big Smile‘ for containers and really small gardens. Its dark-centered yellow flowers are cheerful and prolific. The slightly taller ‘Peach Passion’ is a 2-4’ variety with loads of small, peachy yellow flowers over a season.

Growing Sunflowers

Sunflowers take 50-110 days to bloom from seed, depending on the variety. Plant seeds outdoors in fertile, well-drained soil to a depth of 1-2″, or indoors under grow lights in pots of Black Gold Seedling Mix. Amending garden soil with Black Gold Garden Soil or Black Gold Garden Compost Blend will help facilitate germination and deep root growth. Give sunflowers full sun and lots of space to grow, especially tall varieties. Provide minimal care once established, aside from occasional watering in dry weather.

The burgundy blooms of ‘Prado Red’ are unique and beautiful.

Refrain from planting sunflowers near areas where you intend to direct sow other seeds. Sunflowers excrete chemicals from their roots that reduce germination and seedling growth in many other plant species. This helps sunflowers naturally compete in the wild, but it can create problems in the garden.

Sunflowers are easy to grow, making them one of the best flowers for wildlife and enjoyment. They also self-sow, so you can expect interesting volunteers to pop up in your garden for years to come. Every garden needs a little sun from these cheerful, easy annuals.

The fully double ‘Teddy Bear’ is great for children’s gardens.