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Berry plants can be winners in form and function

Berry plants are flavorful favorites in many kitchen gardens, but their ornamental value is all but ignored.

These versatile perennials bloom in spring, fruit in summer and dazzle again in autumn, combining fashionable form with edible function.

Strawberries make an attractive ground cover, specially when flowering. Leaves on blueberry plants turn crimson in fall, and their bare red stems stand out dramatically against the wintertime snow. Grapevines draped over arbors are eye-catching any time of year.

"There's also no great mystery in growing them," said Barbara Bowling, author of "The Berry Grower's Companion" (Timber Press, 2000). "If you select a good site and pay attention, you can grow wonderful fruit and have an interesting plant to boot."

Maintenance is minimal, but that doesn't mean the plants can be ignored.

"Water a day late and you've done avoidable damage," Bowling said from her home in Boise, Idaho. "Weed a week late and it's the same deal. Harvest the fruit late and you have a mess.'

Time for a little definition. Fruits commonly called "berries" include strawberries, brambles (raspberries, blackberries and various hybrids), blueberries, cranberries, currants, grapes, gooseberries and elderberries, Bowling said.

Berries deliver a remarkable range of flavors and come in a wide range of colors. They frequently are eaten fresh, but just as often are processed into juices, jams, pastries and dairy products such as smoothies.

"Berries are high in nutrients and fiber and low in fat. ... Many species have high levels of numerous antioxidants and anti-tumor compounds," Bowling said.

They require little space in which to grow, and many begin fruiting just two to three years after planting.

"The fact that the fruit is borne on plants with such a variety of shapes, form and color only adds to their allure," Bowling said.

Fruiting plants come in many shapes, from low growing (strawberries), to rounded shrubs (gooseberries, currents), medium-size to tall clustered canes (blueberries, elderberries), or vines (grapes, kiwi). That makes them useful for edging, as screens, backdrops for fences or dangling from pergolas.

Which berry plants should you grow? Veteran gardeners suggest starting with something you like, then narrowing it to cultivars hardy enough for your region. Choose sites with good drainage and plenty of sun.

Elderberries were almost forgotten plants that have become popular recently, said Edie Johnston, whose Eldertide Pharm in Dresden, Maine, was awarded a grant to develop them as a specialty crop.

"Elderberries have always been recognized for their health benefits," Johnston said. "Some growers call them their 'medicine chests,' and drink elderberry juice for the antioxidants. But they're also great specimen plants with beautiful white flower clusters and gorgeous leaves."

Blueberries are another fine multipurpose plant, and that includes an uncommon new variety called "Pink Lemonade." It's a USDA hybrid.

"I know it sounds a little bizarre, but we think the potential of this pink berry for landscape and culinary use is huge," said Karen Kemp-Docksteader, sales and marketing manager for Briggs Plant Propagators in Elma, Wash.

That isn't to say the traditional blueberry plant won't continue to be popular.

"People in the commercial landscape industry around here are planting them alongside condominiums," she said. "They use them as foundation plants where they do double duty. Families who live in the condominiums can enjoy their looks as well as their taste."

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