(This 810th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on October 8, 2006.)
Fall is, of course, the time when we are overwhelmed with the beautiful colors of flowers and leaves. Our fields are yellow and blue with goldenrods and asters and our trees -- wow! -- they display, except for blue, the full artist's palette.
But fall is also a time for berries, many of which will feed mammals and the bird species that remain with us through the coming winter. As the season progresses and leaves drop, those berries will become increasingly evident, not only to wildlife but to us as well.
Identifying a plant species by its berries is a quite reasonable task. To do so I recommend a delightful 60 page pocket-sized book, "Berry Finder" by Dorcas Miller. I have carried a copy of this book with me for many years and have also contributed several to other naturalists by inadvertently dropping copies on various area trails. You can find this little book along with others in its series at any regional bookstore or nature center.
Some berries drop to the ground from the plant on which they were displayed. There the fruit rots and the seed descends into the mulch to regenerate. But just as attractive flowers play a role in pollination, drawing insects to help with that process, so too do berries serve as distribution agents to spread the plants across a region. The seeds contained in the berries pass through the digestive systems of the birds and mammals that eat them and remain viable in the animals' excrement.
Berries serve all kinds of plants in this way: not only shrubs but trees, vines and wildflowers as well. Here I offer comments on a few selected species.
VINES. Our three common vines serve wildlife well. Wild grapes, usually occurring in blue clusters, can often first attract us by their rich odor. Donald Stokes tells of finding "fox scat composed entirely of hardly digested grapes, with just the skins separated from the pulp," and he adds, "What a trick on the fox, who disburses the seeds, and yet receives hardly any nutrition in return for its effort. In this case the animal is outfoxed by the grape."
Virginia creeper leaves are a beautiful red in fall and you are hard put to notice among those leaves the small dark blue berries in small groups on the ends of red stems.
You may have heard the adage, "Observe the plants that animals eat to determine what you can eat." It is dead wrong. I learned this first hand when I watched a pair of pileated woodpeckers feeding on clusters of white poison ivy berries. In fact it is generally true that birds and mammals regularly feed on berries that are poisonous to us.
For what it is worth, I repeat another analysis: 90% of white berries are poisonous; 90% of colored berries are non-poisonous. Clearly, if you are lost in the woods and must eat berries, at least stay away from white ones.
TREES. The apples that remain on cultivated and wild trees serve wildlife, especially deer. Other less conspicuous fruit does as well. For example, hackberry trees bear dark reddish-purple cherry-like berries that some say have a taste similar to dates. They are often called sugarberries and are especially attractive to bluebirds.
Silky Dogwood Berries
Photo by Dr. David Ruppert
SHRUBS. The various dogwoods bear fruit of colors particular to the individual species. Our common red-osier dogwood or kinnikinnick, best known for its bright red stems, bears whitish or bluish berries that Thoreau described as "part of the pendant jewelry of the season." In some species they appear in cone-like clusters but in others, as in the silky dogwood pictured, in flat umbels. (More nature photos by Dr. Ruppert are to be found at his website.
The red fruit of cranberries, rich in vitamin C and pectin, often persists into the winter. And although those red rose hips are among the last berries to be eaten, they too are rich in vitamin C.
WILDFLOWERS. Although fewer wildflower berries persist into fall, there are a few. The purple-black berries of pokeweed (best known from the song, "Poke Salad Annie" -- although the greens are really called poke salet) fall in that 10% that are colored and poisonous. They appear on tall stems that look to me like hollyhocks. Also poisonous are the red or white baneberries closer to the ground.-- Gerry Rising