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“The yucca is still green, and the boxwood,” I said helpfully. I squint out the window at the yard which at this time of year is as uniformly black and white as an old movie. “Maybe scrape away the snow under the big viburnum? The euonymous should be green, too.” .
He came back with berries—gorgeous plump red berries, their ruby flesh frozen to translucence. It snowed last night, one of those snowfalls we call Christmas snow, though it almost never happens at Christmas—big, fat flakes that outline the tree branches and settle into caps on fence posts and white shawls on the conifers. The berries in his pictures have white caps, too, as if they’ve been dipped in whipped cream. .
“How sad!” I exclaim when he shows me the photographs.
“Sad?” he says, crest-fallen. “I thought you’d like them.”
“Oh, I do. But I’d like it better if there weren’t any berries.”
Now he is looking at me as if I have succumbed to cabin fever from the storm.
“If this were the viburnum I thought I was buying, the birds would have eaten all the berries by now.”
“Maybe they’re saving them for a midwinter snack.”
I shake my head. The birds, I’m afraid, are victims of my ignorance. If they had to rely on me to provide living winter sustenance, they’d starve.
That’s not to say I didn’t try. Before I sketched out the plan for that part of the yard, I researched shrubs and flowers appealing to birds and butterflies. Buddleia for the monarchs, I decided, mountain ash and yew for the cedar waxwings, elderberry for the warblers, nannyberry for the brown thrasher, the sweetest singer in the woods.
Dogwood, serviceberry, grape holly, rugosa rose: what I couldn’t find in the woods or suckering in a friend’s garden, I discovered without much trouble in the local nurseries. I planted low-growers for the birds, too—Virginia creeper for the flycatchers and bluebirds, grasses for the finches— and every red vine I could think of for the hummingbirds.
A lot of these birds spend the winter further south, but for those that stay—the chickadees and American goldfinches, juncos, creepers and nuthatches—I restrain myself during autumn cleanup and leave the seed heads of the zinnias, cosmos, asters, and sunflowers where they stand. Viburnum berries aren’t at the top of the birds’ menu of favourites, but in a pinch, during the kind of winters I remember from my childhood when the desire to lick a garden gate can lose a girl her tongue, viburnum berries can keep the birds alive.
Gorgeous spring flowers, attractive fall foliage and red berries that feed the birds all winter, read the label of the one I bought.
“Hah!” said the Garden Guru when I showed her the tag, years later. Under my desk I keep a banker’s box with GARDEN scrawled on one side, and into it I toss all my tree tags and clippings and old catalogues. I can’t find anything in a hurry—but eventually I can lay my hands on most of my garden’s history.
“Of course the birds don’t like your viburnum. It’s got the wrong petioles.”
Well, of course. Silly me, not checking the petioles.
“What are petioles?” I finally asked.
We were standing by the shrub, which had grown to twice my height, flourishing into the lovely, rounded screen my shrubbery books predicted. In spring, it is awash in lacy white blooms, as if the fairies have washed all their winter hankies and draped them over the branches to dry.
“See here, where the leaf attaches to the stem? The stalk of the leaf is called the petiole: it has the same structure as the stem. Those little leaves on either side of the petiole? They’re called stipules.”
I thought of stipulate, stipulation: something added on, but essential.
She peered at the petioles of my viburnum, checked one leaf stalk, then another, turning them this way then that to catch the light.
“Uh-huh,” she said wisely. “I thought so. They sold you Viburnum opulus. What you wanted was Viburnum trilobum.”
“See this warty growth where the petiole meets the base of the leaf? See how it looks a bit like a cup? The shape of the gland means it’s a European cranberry bush. On the viburnum you wanted, the American cranberry bush, the tip of the gland would be rounded.”
She saw the look on my face, which surely must have been screaming what I was feeling, that no one, no matter how dedicated a gardener, could surely be expected to notice the difference between a knobby wart and one shaped like a cup.
“The other way you can tell is by eating a berry: if it’s tart but not too disgusting, it’s probably the native shrub. If you start gagging and spitting, it’s probably the European variety. Personally, I’d recommend getting to know your petioles.”
Birds can tell the difference, that’s for sure. Raised on the American cranberry bush, which, I discovered, grows wild in our woods, they won’t touch the alien import unless they are desperate. The same goes for the mountain ash. Shortly after Christmas, a flock of Bohemian waxwings hungrily stripped my Sorbus Americana, much to the delight of the Grand Girls, who had never seen so many of the same kind of bird in one place before (with the exception of Canada geese) and certainly never these birds with their gorgeous painterly markings. When they flew off, they left the berries hanging on the neighbouring mountain ash tree, the European Sorbus aucuparia that I planted before my Guru taught me to watch for petioles and read tags more carefully.
I was tempted to dig up the European viburnum. Every winter its berries were a judgment, hanging there uneaten, until they rotted in the spring. But in the end, I let it stay. I planted more, too : a pair of V. Burwoodii because they are hardy and hold their leathery leaves long into the fall; a V. plicatum var. tormentosum because I love the way the horizonal branches are laid with plate-sized blooms in June; and a Wayfaring Tree, V. lantana, which has never really filled out to screen the shed, though its flowers scent the pathway, which is enough. There are hundreds of varieties, including many that are hardy in my part of the world. Like me, they love the seasons, all of them, blooming softly in spring, turning colour brilliantly in fall, and setting berries that hang on their stems through the winter, rubies in the snow.
“They are beautiful,” I admit to my Beloved. “I’m not sure that matters to the birds, but it does to me.”