The predominate colors of the winter landscape in Iowa are white and various shades of gray and brown. An excellent way to awaken the dead of winter is to plant trees and shrubs that possess colorful fruit.
While crabapples (Malus) are usually planted for their flowers, many varieties also possess attractive, persistent fruit. Crabapple varieties with red fruit include 'Donald Wyman,' 'Sugar Tyme,' 'Red Jewel,' 'David,' 'White Angel,' and 'Jewelberry.' 'Winter Gold' and 'Harvest Gold' have striking yellow fruit.
Hawthorns are another group of small, flowering trees that possess attractive fruit. Hawthorns produce white flowers in spring. In fall, the fruit turn red and persist into winter. Two hawthorns noted for their excellent fruit display are the Washington hawthorn (Crataegus phaenopyrum) and Winter King hawthorn (Crataegus viridis 'Winter King').
The American cranberrybush viburnum (Viburnum trilobum) is an excellent shrub for screens and hedges. The shrub grows 8 to 12 feet tall and produces white, flat-topped clusters of flowers in spring. The fruit turn a bright red in fall.
A plant often associated with the Christmas season is holly. The glossy, green-leafed and red-fruited sprigs of holly are often used in wreaths, centerpieces, and other decorations. Unfortunately, most hollies are not reliably hardy in Iowa. A native, deciduous holly and several hybrid broadleaf evergreen hollies can be successfully grown in Iowa.
Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) is a deciduous holly. It is native to northeast Iowa and grows 6 to 10 feet tall. Hollies are dioecious. There are separate male and female plants. The fruit on female plants turn a bright red in fall and persist into winter. Two female varieties noted for their excellent fruit display are 'Sparkleberry' and 'Winter Red.' A male variety must also be planted for pollination and fruit set. Winterberry prefers moist, acid (pH 4.5 to 6.5) soils and will grow in sun or partial shade.
Several hybrid broadleaf evergreen hollies introduced by Mrs. F. Leighton Meserve, collectively known as the Meserve hybrid hollies (Ilex x meserveae), can also be grown in some areas of Iowa. 'Blue Prince,' 'Blue Princess,' 'China Boy,' and 'China Girl' are hardy to -10 to -20 F (USDA Hardiness Zone 5). Meserve hollies are susceptible to winter (desiccation) injury from bright sun and dry, cold winds. They should be planted in protected areas, such as the east side of a house.
The Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii) is a small (4 to 6 feet tall), thorny shrub. Its green leaves change to orange or reddish purple in the fall. The Japanese barberry produces small, oval-shaped fruit which turn bright red in the fall and persist into winter. Many varieties are available. Most possess reddish- purple foliage.
Red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia) is an upright, spreading shrub. It produces small, white flowers in spring, followed by red berries in fall. The common name chokeberry is derived from the astringent taste of the fruit. Red chokeberry grows 6 to 10 feet tall. An excellent fruiting variety is 'Brilliantissima.' 'Brilliantissima' is hardy in USDA Hardiness Zones 5 to 8.
The brightly colored fruit of many of the aforementioned trees and shrubs do not remain throughout the winter. Extreme cold in mid-winter will cause many of the fruit to turn brownish or black. Hungry birds and squirrels will also dine on the fruit. However, the display in late fall and early winter can be spectacular.
This article originally appeared in the November 10, 1995 issue, p. 149.