That winter color!
Four years ago, late in August, I was walking around Herring Run Nursery in Baltimore when I saw the most amazing thing -- pink blueberries! I was unsure of what I was looking at. A blueberry shrub that had somehow been morphed?
Turned out it was a Proven Winners cultivar of native coralberry (Symphoricarpos orbiculatus) called 'Proud Berry®'. It's a shrub grown for the profuse pink berries in fall and early winter. Shrubs grow to about four feet high and wide. The berries are unusual and great for botanical decor.
Herring Run advised to cut shrubs back to 12" each spring. I have done that each year since and the shrubs produce more and more berries each year. This year they really came into their own. During the growing season, the thin wispy stems and branches and smallish blue green leaves blend in and you don't really notice until the berries form. The berries though -- totally worth the space!
It's also versatile. It grows in full sun, part sun and part shade. I tried it in full sun and part shade. Full sun definitely seems to yield many more berries. Soil wise, it is said to grow in clay, average or rich soils and take both dry, once established, and wet conditions.
While the shrub was maturing, I noticed the berries did not seem to be eaten by birds and, once freezing weather hits, the berries brown and turn mushy. It occurred to me that since this was a cultivar, it may be different from the straight species, or unaltered, native plant. Last summer, I looked into what the straight species would look like.
I planted the small coralberry shrub and its growth habit is very much like the Proven Winners cultivar so far. Experts say the native coralberry can be good for stabilizing banks and has a suckering habit. While the cultivar is growing as a single shrub and not spreading, the straight species native may tend to spread.
So far, the key difference is the shape and color of the berries. The straight species coralberry has smaller deep red pink berries which are more oblong shaped. These also brown in freezing weather but not as readily. Since the stature of the shrub, spindly stems and branches, seems similar to the cultivar, I plan to cut it back to 12" in late spring and it should produce larger and more berries each year.
Experts advise cultivars of native plants are thought to be ok for supporting insects and wildlife so long as the cultivar does not change the color of the foliage or change the flower. The foliage color of the straight species and the cultivar are similar. The berries, technically drupes (fruits with a seed inside), of the straight species and the cultivar are very different.
If you are looking for ecological benefit, I'd go with the straight species native coralberry to be sure. That color is great too. You will likely only find the straight species at select native plant nurseries like Kollar and Bona Terra. Or, you could join me and grow both for good measure!