Speaking of Nature: Growing in a quiet corner — the nannyberry

The sumptuous colors of these nannyberries are pure eye candy.

The sumptuous colors of these nannyberries are pure eye candy. PHOTO BY BILL DANIELSON


Published: 10-15-2023 3:46 PM

“One has only to sit down in the woods or fields, or by the shore of the river or the lake, and nearly everything of interest will come round to him, — the birds, the animals, the insects; and presently, after his eye has got accustomed to place, and to the light and shade, he will probably see some plant or flower that he has sought in vain, and that is a pleasant surprise to him.”

Anyone who reads regularly will recognize this sentence as being old. The language used and the run on sentence are the giveaways. But what words they are! First appearing in print in March of 1883, this passage is the one most oft quoted by me when it comes to observing nature. These words are 140 years old, but the simple truth in them is a wonder to behold.

I practice the words that John Burroughs wrote by going down into the meadow behind my house and sitting in a simple, plastic Adirondack chair that I have named, “The Thinking Chair.” All throughout the summer and fall I have done my best to arrive every morning between 6 and 7 a.m. (the time of arrival gets progressively later as the days begin to shorten) and I remain there until approximately 9 a.m. In this way my eye has, “got accustomed to the place,” and I am familiar with every stick on every tree in sight. Thus, it is easy for me to spy something new, or out of the ordinary.

Even when it is time to walk back up the hill, I follow the same route every day. I take a “detour” to the west to the place where one of my trails emerges into a great hayfield, and there I pause for a moment to scan the sky for any winged creature that may have been startled by my appearance. Then I turn around, walk back into the woods, and walk north through a grove of white pines.

One day, while performing this somewhat mindless act, I turned away from the hayfield and found myself face to face with a plant that I had never noticed. It would have been there, right in front of my face all through the summer, but finally something “interesting” developed and this was impossible for my eyes to ignore. It was a bunch of berries of the most beautiful colors and though it took me a while to identify the plant, I eventually determined that it was a nannyberry (Viburnum lentago).

Growing to a height of 15-20 feet, the nannyberry is a tree that is highly prized among landscape designers for its beautiful white flowers in the spring. These flowers grow in flat-topped clusters called “umbels” and they resemble the flowers of the Queen Anne’s Lace plant. The flowers are abundant and have a soft, “foamy” look to them.

Once the flowers fade the plant can easily “disappear” into the background, but as autumn approaches the fruits of the plant put on a dazzling show of color that I personally find far more impressive than the flowers. The berries of the nannyberry are about a half inch in length and they are somewhat ovate, like a kiwifruit. But it is the color of these berries that is so spectacular. Starting out yellow, the berries progress through orange, to purple and then finally to a shiny blue-black.

On the particular morning that I took today’s photo there was no sun to be seen because of a heavy fog that had settled over the meadow. The humidity on the air was so thick that every spider web in sight was bejeweled with drops of dew and a fairly constant shower of “raindrops” fell on me whenever the chickadees landed in the branches above my head. All of that day’s photos had particularly vibrant colors and this one is no exception.

You can see the dew on the shiny black skin of the ripe berries, and you can also see the sumptuous color of the stems to which all of the berries cling. Known as a “drupe,” this arrangement of fruits is such that they all hang down toward the ground. I particularly like the fact that the red-orange color of the stems blends in perfectly with the color of some of the unripened berries so well that it is difficult to tell where one structure begins and another ends.

In my private library I have a book with the title, “American Wildlife and Plants: A Guide to Wildlife Food Habits.” A Dover Edition of a book first published in 1951, it is a wonderful resource for finding the connections between plants and wildlife. It actually took a bit of looking to find the entry for nannyberry because it was not featured as an individual species. Instead, it was lumped together with other members of the Viburnum genus.

What I learned was something of a surprise. Although the berries are fairly large and conspicuous, very few wild mammals and birds actually seem to take notice of them. The only bird species that utilize nannyberry as 2-5 percent of their seasonal diets are Ruffed Grouse, Brown Thrasher and Cedar Waxwing. The only mammals are Red Fox, Eastern Chipmunk and White-tailed Deer. This could be a result of the fact that nannyberry trees are somewhat uncommon, so delicious as they might be, there just aren’t that many of them.

The fall foliage may have reached its peak, but there is still plenty of time to get outside and soak in the glorious qualities of autumn. There is something about the autumn landscape that I find truly wondrous. Even the simple sight of small trees and blackberry bushes at the edge of a field, slowly losing their leaves and preparing for a long winter’s sleep is just mesmerizing. Get out and soak up as much of this beauty as you can while it lasts.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 26 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy and the Massachusetts State Parks and he currently teaches high school biology and physics. For more in formation visit his website at www.speakingofnature.com, or go to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.