When I was growing up on of the most discussed subjects in the autumn was the amount of berries on the Sorbus aucuparia (Mountain Ash) trees.
My parents always told us that if there are a lot of berries on the mountain ash in the fall it was going to be a cold winter. I had this incantation drilled into me year after year, and like many things that we carry from our childhood, it’s still with me today.
I can’t look at mountain ash trees in October or November without sizing them up for berry set. If you look at the trees in your community this year with this approach, you’ll be making sure there’s fuel in the snow blower, wood piled up for the fireplace or extra money put aside for the furnace bill.
There’s a heavy crop of berries on not only the mountain ash, but on many other trees and shrubs that feature berried fruit over the winter. Pyracantha, or firethorn, is loaded with orange or yellow fruit right now. They’re quite beautiful. The white berries of the Symphoricarpos albus, or Snowberry, are more numerous than usual.
For years I bought into the correlation between heavy berry crop and a cold winter forthcoming. Unfortunately I never bothered to gather any empirical evidence to support this claim.
From my earliest memory until I was in my teens it seemed that every winter was cold. We froze walking to school, froze during recess outside, froze on the way home and froze while we played hockey in the driveway. Winters were cold regardless of how many berries there were on mountain ash trees.
But, we all get older, and sometimes we get wiser. One of the things I got wiser about was biology. Plants can do many things for us, but plants cannot foretell the future.
While there is a heavy crop of berries on mountain ash right now, which may be followed by a cold winter, there can’t be any relationship between the two events. Plants can produce extra berries one year but they’re no better than Environment Canada or the Farmer’s Almanac when it comes to forecasting weather.
These plants are reacting to weather that has already occurred. Plants produce heavy crops of berries or seeds when they are stressed by environmental conditions from previous months, whether it’s hot and dry summers or cold winters. It’s all in an effort to perpetuate the species; to keep the family name alive.
Whether it was a combination of winter cold and/or summer heat that produced the berry crop this year I don’t know. I do know that all those fruits were nice to look at this past fall, and that the birds will enjoy them as a food source over the winter, which is going to be a cold one. At least that’s what the kid in me still believes.

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