Robins are Back! Spring is here!

A robin!

Robins are back!  Spring is here!


Well, not exactly, even if we are going to have spring-like weather this coming week.

We assume that all robins fly south in the fall, but some linger here all winter, particularly the males.  (They want to be the first ones here in the spring to claim the best territory.)  My daughter, who  took this photo on Sunday, has noticed an especially large contingent hanging around her neighborhood all winter, most notedly in the Japanese crabapple trees that have been bred to hang on to their apples all winter.

Fruits are very important for overwintering birds,” says Christopher Whelan, an avian biologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey. According to Whelan, many insectivorous birds change their diet in fall and winter.  Some other examples are Eastern Bluebird, Cedar Waxwing, and Mockingbird.

Most berries ripen in late summer or early fall, supporting birds that need the extra energy to migrate south.  But some berries are too hard to eat in the fall; they need to go through many freeze-thaw cycles to become palatable.  Therefor, they hold on through the winter and are available for year-round birds and early arrivals back from warmer climes.

Feb BSF Smooth Sumac

Smooth Sumac (Rhus glabra) berries at Bluff Spring Fen.

smooth sumac BSF

The prolific red velvet berries of  Smooth Sumac form large clusters that persist long into winter.  Colony-forming, it becomes too large for most home properties but it is common in the wild along trails, railroads, fencerows, and edges of woodlands.  These photos were taken along the edges of Bluff Spring Fen in Elgin.

smooth sumac flower head

Smooth Sumac berries–this stunning photo was taken by Jack Shouba.

Smooth Sumac  is a choice food of eastern bluebird, catbird, mockingbird,  and wood thrush.  The fruits persist long into winter, and many birds and other wildlife rely on them for a food source.

American Cranberrybush

‘The translucent red berries of American Cranberrybush (Viburnum trilobum) make a stunning display, decorating the shrub from September through most of the winter.  The berries are too astringent for birds to eat in fall and early winter; the fruit doesn’t become palatable until it has gone through multiple freeze-thaw cycles. The species grows 8-12’ tall and 6-8’ wide; there are, however, smaller growing cultivars.   Plant it in moist shrubbery borders in sun or partial shade.   It, however, is not often found in nature in the Chicago area–it’s much more at home in more northerly climes-along the northern Illinois border, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, and Canada.

I planted cultivars of these shrubs on the north side of a house and on the northeast corner of another house for clients; both sites proved to be too shady and none of the shrubs have flowered or berried, much to everyone’s disappointment–and my embarassment.  This specimen, above, is in full sun and is spectacular.  Or I should say “was”; the current owners of the property have taken it down.  This photo is from several years ago.

\\In a garden that is covered with a white blanket of snow there is a distinct beauty which the far south does not possess.  A drift of snow half covering a stone ledge  or blanketing a group of prairie roses that send their red berries through the snow, warming their surroundings with the reflected light from the sun, creates a picture of joy and happiness.  It is so different from the same garden in summer, yet in both there is the freedom and the urge to be.

Jens Jensen       Siftings

prairie rose berries

Prairie Rose, Potawatomi Park, St. Charles, ILThe 1/2” red hips and bristly stems of the Prairie or Illinois Rose (Rosa setigera)  are colorful in winter in gardens, fencerows, and savannas.  Illinois Rose is a large rambling shrub that can be unruly; its long canes may stretch to 12’ or more.  It may be trained over an arch or along a fence or situated to cascade down a hillside.  It has spectacular blossoms in early July and  colorful autumn  foliage in October and November.   In nature this rose grows in part shade in woodland openings or edges. This photo was taken in early December 2009.  Mine only produce a few berries.

Then heigh-ho! the holly!

  This life is most jolly.

William Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s holly doesn’t grow in the Midwest; indeed, no evergreen hollies thrive in our harsh climate.

winterberry overlooking fox river

But if you can provide compatible cultural conditions, Winterberry or Michigan Holly (Ilex verticillata) will put on a ravishing berry display in fall and winter.  Its profuse red fruit ripens in September and October and persists through December and into January.  The leaves are not evergreen as are other hollies, but when the leaves fall, the crimson berries show off magnificently on the bare branches, especially striking against snow.

Winterberry grows 6-10’ tall in wide colonies. Hardy to zone 3, it is found throughout the East and into Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, and northeastern Illinois.  Winterberry is dioecious and requires both female and male plants for flowering.   It prefers a moist or wet soil with a pH of 6-6.5‘; it is thriving hear near the Fox River at Potawatomi Park in  St Charles, IL.   This area is frequently inundated in spring.

wintersprite‘‘Red Sprite’, a Winterberry compact dwarf cultivar, 3-4’ high and wide, with an abundance of bright red berries, is growing happily, so far, next to the St. Charles Park District building, so it might be worth trying  (Jim Dandy, the male form, is required for every 4 females).

We’ve all heard of the Asiatic Burning  Bush (Euonymus alatus), seemingly planted on the corner of every house in every neighborhood, but none of us have heard about our native Burning Bush or Wahoo (Euonymous atropurpureus)–our loss.  


Wahoo  photo by Jack Shouba, taken at Leroy Oaks Forest Preserve in Kane County.

Amazingly, these are not the flowers; this is the fruit that emerges in October and lasts most of the winter!  Absolutely stunning, isn’t it?

It has tiny purple flower clusters from mid-May to early July, vibrant red leaves in the fall, followed by the above fruiting berry clusters that ornament this plant well into early winter.

I have read varying measurements on its ultimate size, from 8-12’ tall and around to 12-24’ tall and wide  I have to admit I have never seen one more than a couple of feet or so tall.

It’ s not as versatile as E. alatus, which seems to grow just about anywhere;

Wahoo prefers partial shade and moist soil.

It is found in the wild in woodlands, wooded stream banks, shaded floodplains, and fencerows.

Do any of you grow Wahoo?  If so, what can you tell us about it?  Would enjoy hearing more.

















No comments yet.

Leave a Reply


Powered by WordPress. Designed by WooThemes