Monday, October 21, 2013

Beauty can be a beast

During this time of year, the scenery changes, seemingly minute by minute. Light changes: the angle of the sun creates shadows and details. Color changes; grasses go to warm browns and golds, meadows show off aster purples, goldenrods and Joe Pye weed magentas.
There are other colors showing up in hedgerows and shrub lands and along roadsides. This is the season for berries. Throughout the spring and summer we enjoyed the flowers, some showy, some discrete. Some are fragrant and others not at all. But now the great variety of berries, the fruits, creates a special show,
Take a ride along a back country road, or even along the highway, and it is impossible not to notice the bounty of berries. We have dozens of native shrubs and bushes that have evolved to provide the vital foods needed by small mammals and birds. Ripening over a succession of weeks and even months through fall and winter, they provide a food source for birds when insects are long gone. Migratory song birds will rely on shrub-lands full of cover and food as they stop after a long night of flight to rest and feast and refuel.

But not all berries are created equal! Over the decades shrubs were imported and planted as ornamentals. Multiflora Rose created instant hedgerows and fragrant white flowers in spring. Those flowers turned into abundant fruits, rose hips, that were eaten by many species of birds. Seeds were dispersed in droppings and now the rose has become an invader, an aggressive spreader that is quick to colonize fields and roadsides. Even though it does provide food and cover, it will out-compete other native plants in our landscape.
Multiflora Rose

Autumn Olive was planted deliberately along our highways to create visual buffers, and also to be a quick cover to prevent erosion. Now that shrub dominates the roadsides. Red berries are abundant now and robins and thrushes are quick to find them. At this time of year we can witness great flocks of starlings, along the highways, swirling and circling as they descend into the medians and roadside edges to feast on the berries and further disperse the seeds.
Autumn Olive

We all enjoy the colors of autumn decorations, but beware of using the non-native and invasive Oriental Bittersweet. It is another truly lovely berry, but a menace when its seeds are spread. The resulting vines climb and twist their way up trees and over native shrubs, strangling and adding their weight and causing death to the plant that supports it.
Oriental Bittersweet

Oriental Bittersweet vine

One of the most outstanding plants for colorful berries is likely the very worst invader: Porcelain berry. A decade or so ago, it was a sought after nursery plant, a climbing vine with most unusual berries. They start creamy white, then to pale green, then light teal, deeper aqua, sky blue and then to purple when ripe. Porcelain berry vine is a vigorous grower, adding inches, if not feet, almost overnight. It covers everything in its path. Obstructing light, smothering plants beneath, it forms a dense monoculture allowing no diversity and changing the landscape and altering valuable habitat.
Porcelain berry smothering a ceder tree.

The colorful Porcelain berry.

Walk through the Moore Woodlands in Groton, Knox Preserve or Knox Family Farm in Stonington, Pine Swamp in Ledyard, Preston Nature Preserve and many other Avalonia Land Conservancy properties. Notice the berries. Take the time to learn the non-natives and notice the beastly effects they have on our landscape and avoid them in your own. Opt for natives instead and the birds will be happier you did.

Written and photographed by Beth Sullivan.

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