Fall-fruiting Frangula feeds our Feathered Friends

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Frangula purshiana

Native cascara (Frangula purshiana) berries are popular with birds.

Is summer over?

The birds seem to think so. Robin numbers have sky-rocketed in the garden as birds that bred farther north start to move south. Some of the plants, too, are moving into their Fall fruiting or flowering seasons. After a long, cool spring, summer seemed to last only the blinking of an eye, peaking spectacularly last weekend. The sudden heat damaged some plants, leaving scorched leaves and spent flowers in its wake. With cooler conditions predicted, those spent flowers will rapidly turn to fruit, providing a windfall for birds heading south.

One plant that’s especially appreciated is cascara (Frangula purshiana), a native tree in the buckthorn family. The fruits are pea-sized and change from green through red to black, though slowly, so you’ll often find fruits at different stages on the same branch. Cascara is not a conspicuous tree. Its neatly veined leaves are attractive, though easily mistaken for the all too common red alder (Alnus rubra). The flowers are small and not especially beautiful and even in fruit, cascara doesn’t sing out. The trees occur in native woodland on our boundaries and seedlings readily appear in borders as a result of bird activity.

While many birds snack on cascara fruits, cedar waxwings adore them, and their shrill calls are a common accompaniment to a stroll at Heronswood at the moment. Though the fruits are hard for us to see, flocks of waxwings home in on cascara with apparent ease. Waxwings get their name from the red markings on the wings, which resemble blobs of the sealing wax traditionally used to close letters. Compulsive fruit eaters, they can devastate crops of blueberries, but are more than welcome to our cascara. Back home in the old country, waxwings are rare and a real treat to see. Though they are common in Washington, I still get a thrill whenever I see them and you can too by visiting the garden, open Friday to Sunday, 10am-3pm.

– Dr. Ross Bayton, Asst. Director