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Autumn berries in the rock garden

November 27, 2021
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The appearance of rapidly ripening berries is one of the most convincing indicators that autumn has arrived on the rock garden. There are many berried shrubs to choose from, although relatively few are small enough for the average alpine garden.

Sorbus reducta and Sorbus poteriifolia

Neither of these diminutive rowans need take up too much space, although it is best to avoid the suckering form of S. reducta.
S. poteriifolia is a slow spreader that will never outgrow its allotted space.  Both are very easy to grow and as well as producing plenty of berries will give you good autumn colour in the rock garden. A bright spot in an otherwise rather dull October scree perhaps. The fruits of S. reducta are generally some shade of orange when ripe, those of S. poteriifolia are white.


You can take pieces off and root them at most times of the year, but success rates are likely to be low. Seed is a much better bet, so if you have ripe fruits you are in business. Crush the fruits in a fine sieve and remove as much of the pulp as possible. Then wash the seed in the sieve in running water for an hour or two to remove germination inhibitors. Dry the washed seed on a piece of kitchen towel. Either sow immediately or keep in the fridge until required. Fresh seed which you sow in the autumn may germinate the following spring, or perhaps the year after. Prick the seedlings out in good compost when they are large enough to handle. They should be ready to plant out in their permanent quarters the following spring.

autumn berries rock garden

Sorbus poteriifolia in fruit


Gaultheria is a large genus of very useful dwarf shrubs, species of which may be found on all the continents. The southern hemisphere species were for long separated in Pernettya. However, as botanically they do not differ sufficiently, they are now included in Gaultheria. Being members of the heather family (Ericaceae) they are, to varying degrees, intolerant of limy soils. Here in my freely draining acid medium they thrive with little attention, other than to keep them in check. Some (i.e. Gaultheria shallon) can spread rapidly and become a nuisance in limited space. Other, such as Gaultheria tricophylla and Gaultheria itoana, are unlikely to do so.

Gaultheria itoana autumn berries in the rock garden

Gaultheria itoana

Gaultheria adenothrix

The inconspicuous white flowers of Gaultheria adenothrix

All that I grow are evergreens and form a tidy unobtrusive carpet for much of the year. The tiny white or pinkish flowers are generally insignificant. Not so the large berries in colours ranging from white through pale pink to dark maroon, orange, and even a deep amethyst or black. They adorn the bushes for several months from September to Christmas.

Gaultheria trichophylla blue berries

Gaultheria trichophylla


Plants that ‘root as they go’ are rarely difficult to propagate, and gaultherias are no exception. Excavating the edge of a clump will reveal rooted runners. Remove bits with good roots and either re-plant immediately in prepared ground, or line out in trays of ericaceous compost. Shade and water and leave to establish before planting out or potting on.

If you want more plants they are easy to raise from seed as described for Sorbus.

Pests and diseases

If gaultherias suffer from pests and diseases, then I have failed to notice it. In my experience they are tough plants that never succumb to bugs or fungi. Some find that birds remove the berries, but this has not been a problem in our garden.

Gaultheria mucronata berries

Gaultheria mucronata

John Good

John Good

Our author is a retired research forest ecologist and Emeritus Professor of Environmental Forestry at Bangor University. Throughout his life, John has been interested in all aspects of the observation and cultivation of plants. Alpines and woodlanders were always of particular appeal. He has called North Wales his home for more than 40 years. John and his wife, Pam, have developed and enjoyed their current hillside garden overlooking the sea for the last 27 years.

He joined the AGS over five decades ago. During this time John has served as AGS Director of Publications, Assistant Editor of our journal and as judge at our shows. After years of serving on the RHS Joint Rock Garden Plant Committee, he is now a friend.

John has travelled and lectured widely on alpines and written many articles and several books on the subject. He has also always been heavily involved in his local North Wales Group.

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