Berries for birds

Grow some plants in the garden that bear berries to help birds through the winter. Pyracantha, ivy, holly and cotoneaster are all good choices.

blackbird eating berries from common ivy

In the winter garden, plants that bear berries add a colourful-jewelled effect to the borders. These trees and shrubs can make a huge difference to the diet of our garden birds, providing vital natural food, when bugs and insects are thin on the ground. What’s more, before the berries form, the flowers, usually around in spring, need pollinating and provide a vital source of nectar for bees and other pollinators. Flowers and berries on the same plant means that these plants have at least two seasons of interest and really do earn their space in the garden. That’s an important consideration if you’ve got a small plot and there are even some plants with three or four seasons of interest, which are even better for small gardens.

When it comes to choosing berried plants for birds it’s important to know that not all berries are red and not all berries are good for the birds. Also the birds will only take the berries when they are ripe, so if the berries linger, that’s great for the garden and the birds will feast when they are ready. The lively antics of garden birds in our trees and bushes adds huge interest and life to the garden and you can enjoy the spectacle every year at a similar time.

Greenfinches rely mostly on berries and seeds. Image: Martin Mulchinock

Garden berries are particularly important for the ground feeders that don’t feed from seed feeders. In dire weather a bush of berries can be the difference between life and death for some bird species. These creatures are essential weapons in the gardener’s war on pests and without birds our gardens would be a miserable place. Plant a hedge instead of a fence and choose natural, native berry bearers like hawthorn, blackthorn and rowan.

Five good berries for birds

Holly berries are great late winter berries for birds. Popular with mistle thrushes, which are known to guard a crop of berries, they are wonderful evergreen winter plants. You need to buy a female plant for berries and ensure that there is a male plant in nearby gardens to ensure pollination. Good female hollies include: ‘Madame Briot’ a pretty variegated variety with bright red berries, ‘Blue Princess; which has wavy green blue foliage and deep red berries and the oddly named ‘Golden King’ which is female and has golden edged leaves.

Holly berries. Image: Martin Mulchinock

Cotoneaster shrubs in all their forms are fantastic for the birds and the bees. Some of the larger shrubs can be a bit thuggish in the garden, so opt for the compact Cotoneaster horizontalis, which can be pruned and clipped to hug a wall, or small area. You may be lucky enough to see a flock of exotic looking waxwings swoop in and feast on the berries until every single red jewel has gone. If you’ve got room for a hedge it’s well worth including cotoneaster in the mix to provide a rich source of natural food.

cotoneaster horizontalis berries
Cotoneaster horizontalis. Image: Adobe Stock

Pyracantha is another great wall shrub with a show of berries in the autumn. Keep it tightly clipped to provide a living wall cover with a carpet of white flowers in spring followed by the essential bundles of berries. It’s a good bee plant and the crop of berries, in shades of yellow, orange or red, are a great source of natural food for birds. Choose ‘Orange Glow’ for a mass of orange berries, or ‘Flava’ for yellow fruits.

Pyracantha berries. Image: Martin Mulchinock

You might not consider ivy to be a berry bearer, but once it’s flowered during the autumn, the pretty green heads, quickly form black berries (see main image). Sometimes these are the very last berries to be stripped from the garden and hedgerows but the calorie rich ivy berries are a precious natural winter food for blackbirds and thrushes. It’s the native Hedera helix that is the best berry bearer. It’s wonderful for weaving into festive door wreaths. It’s a vital October/November nectar plant for pollinators needing to build up their winter stores. And it has high calorie berries to stave off starvation for birds in January and February.

Crab apples. Image: Martin Mulchinock

If you have room for small trees then consider growing a crab apple or two. The beautiful spring blossom and the autumn crop of miniature apples, perfect for crab apple jellies, make them a great choice for every garden. They are good pollinator plants for other apple trees and a vital source of early season nectar for bees. The softened, frozen fruit can be a lifesaver in extreme cold for many garden birds. There are many great varieties, ‘Golden Hornet’ has lovely yellow fruit, ‘Royalty’ has dark red fruit, or visit your local nursery or garden centre for more plant advice.


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