Photo courtesy Mary Henry: Red berries, such as these seen here, can brighten up a garden even during the darkest days of winter and can make a thoughtful present for Valentine’s Day.
Photo courtesy Mary Henry: Red berries, such as these seen here, can brighten up a garden even during the darkest days of winter and can make a thoughtful present for Valentine’s Day.

Red berries: What would the holidays be without them? Engineered by nature to attract attention through the darkest months, they enliven the dormant garden, carrying the seeds inside them, along with our spirits, through winter.

From Thanksgiving, through Hanukkah, the Winter solstice, Christmas, Kwanzaa, into the new year, they embellish our dining tables and greeting cards. But wait! Don’t leave out Valentine’s Day. Given our warmer winters, which appear likely to continue, red berries have stayed on many of the trees and shrubs that bear them.

It’s been a while since we’ve seen a hard freeze followed by a sunny day, fermenting the fruits, making for tipsy birds. Stroll the sidewalks of Madison Park and you’ll see red berries popping out of every landscape.

Dozens of plants sport red berries at this time of year. Three in particular are suited to city gardens, small enough or trainable enough, to tuck into most any urban landscape for season-long merriment: Pyracantha, Nandina and Cotoneaster. All sport their colorful fruits from a background of evergreen leaves.

Pyracantha is a handsome, somewhat sprawling plant with stems that arch 6 to 10 feet. Various named varieties produce clusters of pea-sized berries, ranging in color from orange to cherry red and a deeply saturated Chinese red. Fountaining out in a far corner of the garden or pruned into a hedge or espaliered against a wall, this is a showy plant … but take care. This plant has vicious thorns.

Stage it in a place where you can enjoy it, untouched, until you are ready to don long sleeves and strong gloves at pruning time.

Nandina (Nandina domestica) is commonly called Heaven Bamboo. It is not a true bamboo, but has acquired this moniker for its lightly branched, cane-like stems and lacy foliage.

Often seen in large pots, Nandina grows 6 to 8 feet tall with a 3- to 4-foot spread. Nurseries offer multiple cultivated varieties for leaf and berry color.

Nandina is tolerant of our dry summers and grows happily in shade or full sun, making it highly prized to fill in dark spots in the garden.

Given generous light, however, its leaves can color-up vividly and its fruit set far more generously. Several plants, in a sweep, where they get full south- or west-facing light, properly watered through the summer and fertilized, will give you a mass of delicate foliage topped with spectacular 6- to 12-inch conical fruit clusters.

Contoneaster is known for its ease of cultivation and variety, from Cotoneaster horizontals, which crawls over rocks with its herringbone branching pattern to the graceful Cotoneaster lacteus (seen in the photograph), which arches up and out to 10 feet.

Easy to grow, once established, nurture the natural form of the species you choose and allow it to perform with minimal pruning.

Like Nandina, but on a more robust scale, Cotoneaster can fill a bare spot with handsome foliage with the bonus of delicate spring bloom and winter fruit. Often eclipsed by the scene stealers of rhododendron and camellia, this stalwart evergreen has worked diligently in Northwest gardens since it was introduced from China and northern India.

Well planned for timely foliage, fruit and even the earliest blossom, the garden can turn the stretch of holidays from Thanksgiving until Valentine’s Day into a winter festival. That period where the sun slips up just above the Cascades, late in the morning, then crawls along the horizon only to retreat in the late afternoon, can be a period when the garden seems to have dozed into full slumber still wearing the jewels or the bow tie.

Should you be searching for a thoughtful gift for your Valentine, stop in any nursery and ask for one of these red-berried plants. Unlike a box of chocolates, calorie free, and less expensive than lacy undergarments, a red-berried plant will be a growing testament to love for years to come.

So think red berries for Valentine’s Day, lest the goddess Flora team up with Cupid and, in a petulant moment, get him to shoot his arrow at the wrong target.