Most annuals and perennials are selected for their attractive flowers. Though often overlooked by home gardeners, some herbaceous and woody ornamentals produce interesting fruit. These fruits may provide color to the garden or food for wildlife. Some can be dried and used in arrangements. Below is a list of some perennials, annuals, and vines that produce unique or interesting fruit.
Porcelain Vine (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata) is a vigorous, deciduous, twining vine that can climb 15 feet or more. The leaves are lobed, grape-like, and green or green and white variegated. In summer, inconspicuous greenish flowers appear on the vine. Then, in the fall, the grape-like berries mature from a pale green to turquoise, bright blue, and violet. This plant prefers moist, well-drained soils in sun or part shade. Because of its rampant growth, porcelain vine needs strong support.
Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) has an interesting flower as well as fruit. One or two, three-lobed leaves are produced by each plant. The leaves are borne on 12-inch-long petioles. Flowers appear in early to mid-spring. The inner part of the flower consists of a cylindrical, club-like spadix. The spadix is commonly referred to as Jack. The spathe is the outer part of the flower. The leaf-like spathe wraps around the lower part of the spadix. The upper portion of the spathe gracefully curves over the spadix forming a canopied "pulpit". The spathe may be green, purplish-brown, or striped. Jack-in-the-pulpit produces berries which mature to a scarlet-red five to six months after flowering. These berries are often eaten by wildlife. The plant is 1 to 2 feet tall and 1 foot wide. The best place for jack-in-the-pulpit is a moist, partially shaded, woodland garden site. It performs poorly in dry soils.
To attract butterflies to the garden, try Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa). The leaves are spear-like. Individual orange flowers are 1/4-inch across. The flowers are grouped together in many-flowered clusters at the top of the plant. Flowering occurs in late spring to mid-summer. A milkweed-like follicle or pod develops after flowering. Inside the pod are hundreds of seeds with fluffy, wing-like appendages.The plant is 1 1/2 to 3 feet tall and 2 feet wide. Butterfly weed does best in full sun in dry, infertile soils. It does not tolerate wet soils. The plants are slow to emerge so use caution when cultivating the soil around them in the spring. Butterfly weed is very useful in the perennial bed and in meadow areas where it attractsmany types of butterflies. The flowers can be used as cut flowers. Both the flowers and the fruit may be dried for use in arrangements.
To provide winter interest, plant False Indigo (Baptisia australis). The pea-like, three-leaflet leaves are blue-green in color. Indigo blue flowers extend above the foliage in mid to late spring. Following bloom, the plant produces a 2-to 3-inch long, pod-like fruit which turns black at maturity. The fruit hangs on the branches through winter. The hard seeds can be heard rattling inside the shell of the fruit through the fall and winter months. False indigo grows to a height of 3 to 4 feet and a width of 3 feet. Because the plant grows slowly, it will not need to be divided for several years. This plant prefers a site with full sun to partial shade in well-drained soil. If grown in partial shade, false indigo may require staking to keep the growth upright. The pods can provide outdoor winter interest or be used in dried flower arrangements.
Blackberry Lily (Belamcanda chinensis) also provides interesting fruit. The foliage is sword-shaped, 1 inch wide, and 10 inches long. The leaves resemble those of bearded iris. The flowers are borne on stems which may reach 4 feet in height. The star-shaped flowers, which appear during the summer, are orange with red dots. The fruit is a capsule which splits open to reveal a cluster of black seeds that resembles a blackberry. Asite with full sun and dry soil with low fertility produces a 2-foot-tall plant. Plants grown in full sun and moist, fertile soils may grown 4 feet tall and often require staking. Well-drained soil is a must. Mulching is also necessary in the winter. The plant makes a nice addition to the perennial garden. The flower and the seed may be dried and used in floral arrangements.
Bittersweet (Celastrus scandens) is another vine with interesting fruit. The dark green leaves are egg-shaped and serrate with a pointed tip. This vigorous, deciduous vine can grow to 20 feet or greater. The tiny, inconspicuous, yellow-white flowers appear in May to June. The fruit opens in October to reveal the yellow-orange inner wall and crimson seed. Both a male and a female plant are needed to produce fruit. Place the vine in full sun for best fruiting. Bittersweet withstands a wide range of soils and pHs. To control its aggressive growth, plant bittersweet in poor soils. The fruit is used in the fall in dried arrangements.
Clematis vines (Clematis species and hybrids) bloom late spring into fall. Home gardeners can choose from numerous species and varieties which vary widely in flower form, size, and color. Some cultivars bloom on old wood while some bloom on the current season's growth. The fruit is rounded and covered with silky hairs. The leaves are usually large and slightly pubescent underneath. This vine is a rapid grower. Five to ten feet of growth can be achieved in one season. Clematis prefer a site where the top of the plant is warm while the bottom stays cool. Light, loamy, moderately moist soil provides the optimum growing environment. To keep the roots cool, apply mulch around the base of the vine. Avoid extremely hot and sunny areas.
For an unusual specimen, try the European Gladwin Iris (Iris foetidissima). This native of western Europe is not widely planted in Iowa, but it is becoming more popular because of its interesting fruit. This plant is hardy in USDA Hardiness Zone 5. Mulch it heavily in the fall to protect it from Iowa winters. Lilac and green or yellow/green flowers appear in the spring. The primary attraction to this perennial is the large seedpods. The rich, orange seeds appear as the pods split open in the fall. This plant will grow to 1 1/2 feet in height and 2 feet in width. It prefers partial shade and fairly dry soil. The seeds and seed pods work well in dried arrangements.
For interesting dried fruit, try Money Plant (Lunaria annua). Money plant is treated as a biennial which freely self-seeds to produce new plants. In late spring, pink or purple flowers appear on racemes at the ends of the stems. The flowers are often not showy. The impressive fruit then develops in midsummer. It is flat, rounded, satiny, and paper-white. The foliage is toothed and somewhat heart-shaped. Money plant grows to 2 to 3 feet tall and prefers sun or part shade and well-drained soil. Because the plant resembles a weed, it should not be used as a centerpiece in the flower bed. The fruit, which resembles a silver dollar, is most often used for dried arrangements.
Love-in-a-Mist (Nigella damascena) has very fine-textured foliage. The flowers appear at the ends of stems in summer. Each flower is 1 1/2 inches across and closely surrounded by a row of finely textured leaves. Flower colors include blue, pink, and white. The erect growth is 18 to 24 inches tall and 18 inches wide. Love-in-a-mist can be massed in the garden. The blooms provide long lasting cut flowers that can also be dried. The seed capsule is 1 inch in diameter, shaped like an egg, and covered with bristles and branched spines. Love-in-a-mist prefers full sun and ordinary garden soil.
If you are looking for a large annual plant, try Castor Bean (Ricinus communis). The large, palmate leaves come in many colors including green, red, bluish-gray, maroon, purplish, and variegated. Unattractive, petalless flowers are produced on 1-to 2-foot-long flower stalks. The fruit is 1/2-to 1-inch long and either smooth or covered with dark brown, soft spines. Castor bean can grow 5 to 10 feet tall in cultivation. It prefers sun in a rich, fertile soil. Castor bean can be used as a specimen plant or in rows to provide a temporary summer screen. Because of its size, the plant often needs staking. The attractive, bean-like seeds are poisonous.
For large, beautiful, canary yellow flowers, try Ozark Sundrop (Oenothera missouriensis). The 3-to 4-inch flowers appear in summer. Following the bloom, green, torpedo-like fruit appear. The foliage is dark green with a white midrib. Ozark sundrop has a trailing habit which makes it perfect for the raised bed or edging perennial borders. Its heat tolerance makes it an excellent candidate for the rock garden. Plant this perennial in full sun and well-drained soil.
The Pasque Flower (Pulsatilla vulgaris) and Blanketflower (Gaillardia xgrandiflora) have similar seed pods. Pasque flower has soft, pubescent, dissected foliage with silken hairs. The single flower is blue, reddish-purple, or white. Flowers occur in early to mid-spring. Following the bloom, fuzzy, rounded seed pods appear. Pasque flower has a more flattened seed pod than does blanketflower. Pasque flower prefers full sun to partial shade and moist soil. It does well in the rock garden and perennial garden. The plant is 10 to 12 inches tall with basal foliage and erect stems. Blanketflower has 8-to 10-inch-long, lobed, gray-green foliage. The flower, which appears in summer, is a 3-to 4-inch head with yellow, red, or orange "petals" (ray flowers) and a center composed of yellow or purple disk flowers. A rounded, fuzzy seed pod forms immediately after flowering. The plant is 2 to 3 feet tall and has a 2-foot-wide spread. Stems are either erect or sprawling. Blanketflower prefers full sun to part shade and well-drained soil. It can be used in the perennial bed and as a cut flower.
This article originally appeared in the June 19, 1998 issue, pp. 79-81.