Faux-Nuts, Fruits, Berries & Seeds

Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia share the beauty and abundance of Nature’s gifts in this time of Thanksgiving!

Aesculus pavia (Red Buckeye) faux nuts in September.
Photo © 2017 Elaine Mills

by Judy Funderburk, Extension Master Gardener

The bounty produced by the Glencarlyn Library Community Garden, a teaching-demonstration of MGNV, captivated many visitors this fall. Here we invite you to enjoy the beauty and variety of some of those trees, shrubs, and plants through words and photos.

Faux-Nuts – Red Buckeye

Sporting showy tubular red flowers that attract hummingbirds and bees in the spring, this native large shrub or small tree (Aesculus pavia) grows lovely brown rounded 1- to 2-inch fruit capsules in the fall, each of which holds a large brown seed that looks and feels like a nut. Though the seed or faux-nut is poisonous and not for eating, it is a lustrous dark brown with one light patch that looks a bit like a “buck’s eye” and is thought to bring good luck to one who carries it in his or her pocket. Growing 8- to10-feet tall and wide, it should be planted in a semi-wet area in part-shade. It grows on the 3rd Street side of the Library Garden and provides great beauty in the spring and high interest in the fall.

First Fruits – Persimmons

In late summer or early fall our native persimmon tree (Diospyros virginiana) regularly drops her ripened fruits into the patio garden. If you are lucky enough to be there not too long after the bright orange 1-inch round fruit has dropped, you are in for a treat! The texture is soft, and the taste, though hard to describe, is delicious. Native persimmons are very different from the Asian varieties found in supermarkets. Its Latin name Diospyros literally translates to “Fruit of the Gods.” Native Americans cultivated persimmon trees both for their fruit and their hard wood. In early summer, this species produces beautiful fragrant flowers which are pollinated by insects and wind. One tree can produce hundreds of fruits, food for people, birds and insects, beautiful black seeds to show the children, and a few new little trees each year. Most persimmon trees are male or female and are dioecious. Our tree is very special in that it is polygamous, producing fruit without needing a male tree nearby.

It’s the Berries – American Beautyberry 

As the Better Homes and Gardens website quips, “Beautyberry is one shrub that’s really earned its common name.” Callicarpa americana is a native 4- to 6-foot tall shrub with pretty pink blossoms along its arching branches in summer. But it doesn’t really shine until fall, when jewel-like magenta berries cluster at intervals all along the branches. The berries are a food source for birds, such as cardinals, mockingbirds, catbirds, and finches. They can also be enjoyed by humans when made into a tasty sweet tart jelly or wine. Since flowering and fruiting occur on new growth, Callicarpa is cut back to about 2- to 3-feet each spring. Plant in light shade. Once established, it grows well in any kind of soil and is drought tolerant.

Another reason to grow Beautyberry: Its leaves contain callicarpenal, a plant compound that has been tested as a mosquito repellent and proven to be as effective as DEET, without any of DEET’s possible side effects. Use by crushing the leaves and rubbing them on your skin. Who knew we have a beautiful native plant growing in our Garden that feeds birds and serves as a natural mosquito and tick repellent! [The Agricultural Research Service of USDA, in the February 6, 2006 issue of “Agricultural Research” magazine reported isolation of callicarpenal, found in both Callicarpa americana and Callicarpa japonica.This plant compound proved effective as a mosquito and tick repellent.]

Winterberry Holly

The large round red berries of the native deciduous shrub Winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata) stand out like beacons of warmth as the temperatures drop in late autumn and early winter. The abundant berries remain and are showy until spring when freezing and thawing softens them and returning robins, catbirds, and mockingbirds enjoy a spring feast. Sometimes the birds getting a bit “tipsy” if the berries have begun to ferment! Because hollies are dioecious (each individual plant bears only one type of flower: those that will turn into berries–a female plant, or those that bear pollen–a male plant) you must plant both a male and a female that flower at the same time to get the pollination needed to produce those beautiful winter berries. For example, the female winterberry cultivar named ‘Red Sprite’ will only fruit well if you plant the male cultivar ‘Jim Dandy’ nearby.  One male ‘Jim Dandy’ winterberry can pollinate many female ‘Red Sprites,’ so it makes sense to plant several females in front of the unremarkable, but much needed, male. Winterberries can grow in full sun or part shade. They like acid soil and a wet spot in the garden.  High on any gardener’s plant list if one is lucky enough to have the right combination of factors, ‘Red Sprite’ is our garden’s favorite fall and winter bright spot, bringing a smile to the faces of visitors as they enter the Library and the holiday season.

Purple Hyacinth Bean

Dolichos lablab is a fast-growing, gorgeous, pink and purple ornamental vine along the fence in front of the parking lot at the Library. On the years that the Library Garden’s rabbits do not nip the stalk in half just as the vine starts producing, this vine sports deep pink flowers, followed by 3 to 4-inch long dark aubergine bean pods all along the stalk from early summer until frost. As if that were not enough to warrant inclusion in this very short list of great seed-producing plants, the mature seed pods (when they turn brown and begin to split) contain dried bean seeds that are gorgeous, like black jewelry with a bright white mid-section! What other plant is beautiful in flower, pod and seed? The dried seeds of this annual ornamental vine can be kept over the winter, notched or soaked overnight to soften the hard outer shell, and planted outdoors once the soil has warmed, but need a sunny spot and a strong fence, arbor, or trellis to climb.

In an article on gardeningknowhow.com, Master Gardener Susan Patterson notes: “Thomas Jefferson’s favorite nurseryman Bernard McMahon sold hyacinth bean vine plants to Jefferson in 1804. Because of this, the hyacinth bean is also known as Jefferson bean. These fabulous heirloom plants are now featured at Monticello in the Colonial kitchen garden.”

Sweet Gum Seed-Pods

Still important commercially in the Southeastern United States, the native hardwood tree commonly called Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua), has a long history in our country. Its Latin name comes from a description by Spanish naturalist Francisco Hernάndez in 1651 as “a large tree producing a fragrant gum resembling liquid amber.” [Wikipedia reference] This dried sap was used to make a fragrant, bitter chewing gum. Sweet Gum bark was used by the Cherokee to make a tea used as an herbal treatment for the flu. Its leaves, usually five-pointed, star-shaped, and glossy, turn deep red in fall. Its fruits, initially green, turn brown as they ripen and look like 1-inch round thorny stickers. Goldfinches, purple finches, squirrels, and chipmunks eat the seeds after the fruit pods have split. The internet writer/forager Green Deane of eattheweeds.com described them as, “the sand spur of the forest. …The vicious seed pods have impaled many a forager and have done much to ruin the Sweet Gum’s reputation.” On the other hand, many a crafter has been grateful for these spiny pods. When spray painted silver, gold, or red, and frosted with glitter, they make lovely tree or table holiday decorations.

The Glencarlyn Library Community Garden is one of the seven Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia/Virginia Cooperative Extension Demonstration Gardens. Open to the public during daytime hours, these gardens grow and show many of the plants, shrubs and trees available to homeowners in Northern Virginia as well as providing a place of beauty and respite for those wanting a touch of the natural world in the midst of our urban setting. Located in Arlington, VA just south of Route 50 off Carlin Springs Road at the corner of S. Third and South Lexington Streets, this is a place to come and savor the gifts of a garden in the midst of our hurried world.


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