I've just come back from a couple of hours in the garden at Great Dixter, armed with my camera, in a hunt for berries. After a day of rain followed by clear blue skies, it was all too easy to be distracted by the colours in the garden and the absolutely delicious profusion of late summer planting. And then, of course, there is the nursery which is literally, irresistible. In his book 'The Well Tempered Garden', Christopher Lloyd talks about the Cotoneaster horizontalis outside his window and how he would watch the birds taking the berries: the blackbirds took the whole berry - and thus seedlings would sprout all over the garden - while the finches and sparrows would take the berries but spit the pulp out of the sides of their beaks. I think this plant is much maligned and not planted often enough. I can't remember when I last saw it for sale. Its profusion of berries, plus glorious autumn colour and rather elegant herringbone winter outline, make it thoroughly worth having and it is useful for covering up an unsightly wall or dull corner. Cotoneaster lacteus is another stunner with large clusters of small red berries which last until after Christmas. Grown as a hedge, it will provide a sheet of long-lasting red berries. When I spot yet another leylandii hedge being planted, it's hard not to leap out of the car, be bossy and suggest alternatives. Why not grow hedging plants for their autumn berries which visually are a bonus for us but for wildlife an extra source of food? There's so much choice whether it be a native mix including, amongst other things, blackthorn with which you can brew up sloe gin, holly berries, the translucent red berries of Viburnum opulus (Guelder Rose) or, if you are on chalk, Viburnum lantana (Wayfaring tree) which is even more attractive with its beautiful clusters of fruits gradually turning from red to black. And our native hawthorn or May (Crataegus monogyna) produces prodigious numbers of red fruits or 'haws' after a fantastic show of fragrant white flowers in the spring and is a favourite for thrushes late in the year.
The common elder (Sambucus nigra), apart from providing elderflowers for cordial and champagne, produces clusters of tiny black berries which provide food for migrant birds as well as our native blackbirds and if we get there first, provides the ingredients for elderflower jelly and wines. There was an article in one of the nationals last week about two old school friends based in Kent who have given up the corporate life to become hedgerow foragers. You may well have seen it. Their business, Wild at Heart Foods, produces preserves made from the harvesting of fruits and berries from their local hedgerows. It is proving so successful that Ginny Knox of Wild at Heart Foods tells me that they are now going to employ hedgerow pickers to enable them to expand their business. What a good idea. Their products can be bought at various farm shops in Kent and Sussex as well as Farmers' Markets. And rounding off the hedging for berries theme, but perhaps in a more domestic situation, pyracanthas provide both bright, though not edible, berries and added security to your boundaries with their impenetrable spiny branches. Try Pyracantha 'Orange Glow' with P. 'Coccinea'. Another shrub not often grown in domestic gardens, but which combines berries and thorns, is the sea buckthorn or Hippophae rhamnoides. Often seen in great profusion down near the sea - there is masses of it between the golf course and the beach at Camber Sands - its proximity to the coast suggests that it is a perfect plant to grow in exposed places. Actually it will grow just about anywhere and gives you the benefit of silvery, willow-like leaves and a great deal of smallish orange berries growing along the stem. Very few birds take these apart from pheasants and they certainly taste pretty tart. They contain an extraordinarily high vitamin C content and whilst most parts of this plant contain health-promoting vitamins and have been used in various forms for centuries in traditional medicines, it is the juice of the berries that contains the most beneficial and therapeutic oil. It provides the basis for some Ayurvedic medicines and it is said that Genghis Khan and his armies used it to increase stamina and heal wounds as they fought their way across Europe and Asia. Back in modern times, sea buckthorn oil is used as a component of shampoos, face and hand creams and Weleda produce a well tried and tested range. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall of River Cottage has a recipe for Sea Buckthorn Fizz which involves cooking the berries, sieving them through muslin, adding golden caster sugar to taste and then adding the result in small quantities, one to two teaspoons, to a glass of champagne or sparkling wine. Plants that berry are doing so to get their seeds dispersed. Once such is the hypericum: I have one on the edge of a border in semi shade under a spreading apple tree. I've never been a hundred percent sure, but it may well be the very decorative Hypericum x inodorum which is often grown by flower arrangers. It certainly flowers on this season's wood, as this variety does, and we have learned by trial and error that by cutting our plants down to the ground at the end of each winter, they come up flowering and berrying better than ever. The conical reddish brown berries are really pretty and I love the way they stand on their ends surrounded by a glamorous frilly calyx. The cultivar 'Rheingold' is a good one to look out for as it is a pretty healthy form and seems to avoid the rust that some hypericums are prone to.