After a harsh Florida summer, my garden (and the gardener) can look a little tired. To perk things up a bit, I have begun planting native shrubs that produce fall berries. The berries add autumn color and interest and provide a valuable food source for visiting birds. There are many outstanding native shrubs to consider. Here are just a few of my favorites.
American Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana)
American beautyberry meets my most important requirement: it is easy to grow. It does well in sun to partial shade, tolerates various types of soil, and has no serious pest or disease problems. It has arching branches and an open, loosely-rounded growth habit. At maturity, it can reach three to eight feet tall with an equal spread. American beautyberry is a deciduous plant with serrated, light green leaves. In summer, small, lavender-pink flowers form in the leaf axils (the angles where the leaves attach onto the stems) and provide a nectar source for butterflies and bees. The flowers are followed by tight clusters of shiny, magenta berries. If not devoured by birds, the fruits can remain on the plant after the leaves drop, extending the show.
Shiny-Leaf Coffee (Psychotria nervosa)
As its name implies, shiny-leaf coffee (also called wild coffee) is a compact, evergreen shrub with shiny, dark green leaves. Although in the same family as the plant that produces our morning java, it is a different species, and its berries do not contain caffeine. This low maintenance plant prefers well-drained soil in partial or full shade. It has a dense, rounded shape, growing about two to eight feet tall and up to five feet wide. Shiny coffee is attractive in every season with deep veins giving each leaf a textured appearance that reminds me of quilting. Small, greenish white flowers appear in spring or summer and may continue throughout the year, attracting a variety of pollinators. Birds enjoy the dark red berries that follow. It does well as a specimen plant and can also be grouped to form an attractive hedge.
While technically a long-lived perennial, rouge plant functions like a small shrub in my garden, growing to a tidy mound about three to four feet tall and equally wide. It has neat evergreen foliage and produces tiny white or light pink flowers all season, which are visited by various pollinators. The flowers are followed by clusters of small red berries that are quickly consumed by birds. In the past, the berries have been used to make red dye and rouge, which explains the common name. Rouge plant grows well in part sun or shade and is drought tolerant, making it a perfect solution for the dappled shade under trees. And it requires little maintenance. When the plant becomes a bit leggy, I simply give it a haircut, and it responds with fresh new foliage.
Rouge Plant (Rivina humilis)
Simpson’s Stopper (Myrcianthes fragrans)
While its natural range is a bit south and east of our area, Simpson’s stopper adapts well to Pinellas County gardens. This shrub or small tree has bright green, leathery leaves and an upright, rounded shape, growing from three to 20 or more feet tall. When I first saw the plant, I was attracted to its unusual flowers. With four white petals and multiple long white stamens, each flower resembles a miniature starburst. The flowers also attract pollinators and are followed by green fruits that ripen to an orangey-red and provide food for many species of birds. Simpson’s stopper does best in sun or part sun and moist, well-drained soil. It is named for Charles Torrey Simpson, an American botanist and naturalist who was known for his conservation efforts in Florida. Curiously, the name “stopper” alludes to the plant’s historical use as a treatment for diarrhea.
Wax Myrtle (Morella cerifera)
Wax myrtle (also called southern bayberry) is a large shrub or small tree with evergreen, aromatic foliage. It is tough and easy to grow, tolerating full sun or light shade and various soil conditions, including both moist and dry sites. It makes an excellent background plant or hedge, growing 15 to 25 feet tall and 20 or more feet wide, but it can be kept smaller and responds well to pruning. Most plant species have both male and female flowers or flower parts on the same plant. However, wax myrtle is dioecious, meaning there are separate male and female plants. Both males and females produce inconspicuous light green flowers. Then, if a male wax myrtle is growing nearby, female plants will produce small, waxy, blue-gray berries. The berries are prized by birds, and the plant’s multi-stemmed, open growth habit also provides good wildlife cover. And here’s a bit of trivia about another Florida native. Local author, Myrtle Scharrer Betz, who was born in 1895 and grew up on Caladesi Island, wrote a popular book about her experiences, Yesteryear I Lived in Paradise: The Story of Caladesi Island. In the book, Myrtle explains she was named for the wax myrtle berries her family harvested and used to make bayberry candles.
There are many beautiful and versatile Florida native shrubs that produce colorful berries. I encourage you to try some of them in your own garden. You’ll enjoy the burst of fall color, and your local birds will appreciate the service.
Debora Moran has a Bachelor of Technology in Plant Science from the State University of New York at Cobleskill and was a Senior Extension Educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension in Schenectady County, New York. She has written for Fine Gardening magazine and Green Scene, the journal of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.