Potty Gardening Club: Clever Berries
At this time of year you will notice that on some plants in your garden berries have replaced the flowers. The hedgerows are full with different berries providing a feast for people and wildlife. Berries are a very clever way to entice birds and other animals to distribute a plant’s seeds. Packed with vitamins and energy, a berry is a small, pulpy, and often edible fruit. Juicy, rounded and brightly coloured, most berries are either red or black to be more visible to the birds. Berries are a very important food source for many birds through the winter when the ground may be frozen hard or covered with snow, making it impossible to hunt for worms or snails and insects.
Berries can taste sweet or sour and contain many pips or seeds. Gooseberry, Strawberries, Raspberries, Blueberries, Blackberries, Red currants and White currants are all edible berries suitable for humans. But there are many berries that are poisonous to us that aren’t poisonous to other creatures. Many different birds eat a variety of berries that are poisonous to humans. I have cotoneaster and ivy growing in my garden and to me the berries would be poisonous, but research has shown for birds the dry pith of the ivy berry contains nearly as many calories as a Mars Bar and the birds love it (Personally I would choose the Mars Bar).
In most cases the bird digests the pith and the seeds travel through the bird’s gut, to be dropped in bird poo undamaged ready to germinate many miles away. Have you ever noticed young trees and bushes seem to grow against fences and posts and ivy, cotoneaster and brambles grow up through your hedge? This is because the birds use these as perching posts and drop seed-laden poo below. Some berry seeds actually need to pass through a bird’s gut to be able to grow.
Another cunning way berry seeds use birds to spread is to be sticky. Berries like mistletoe, which is a parasitic plant, stick to the bill of birds like the Mistle Thrush, which feed on the berries. The birds have to wipe their bills clean on other trees, sowing more mistletoe plants. How clever is that?
Berries are a brilliant and important food source for animals like mice, hedgehogs, squirrels foxes and badgers. They also attract insects, another good food source for birds. Have you any berry plants growing in your garden? Why not have a go and plant a berry? You can use cotoneaster, holly or other berries. Just put it into a hole (not too deep) in the ground or pop it into a pot of compost and put it outside in a sheltered spot. Keep it damp and see if you can get it to grow. It may take awhile to start growing, be patient. Remember to be aware of any allergies, wear gloves and wash your hands well after you have finished and be ‘berry’ careful when using tools.
Written by Rob Gagliano, Casual Learning Development Leader and Natural Science Collections Volunteer