why no fruit? when pollination fails

doublefile viburnum fruit
IT’S A GREAT YEAR FOR FRUIT-SET HERE in most of my bird-friendly ornamental plants (and also my beloved old apple trees), but for some readers the opposite has been true. Why no fruit on a viburnum (that’s a well-fruited doublefile type, top photo), or a spicebush, or a holly, people have written in lately to ask?

That was the topic, or at least part of the topic, of last week’s radio podcast (and you can stream it here or get it free from iTunes here).

The answer is all about sex, of course–or at least about pollination, and whether a particular plant can provide its own pollen or needs another plants (and if so, which kind) to provide the necessary ingredient. In the case of spicebush (Lindera benzoin, a native shrub that I grow here for my enjoyment and the birds’), there are separate male and female plants–meaning Lindera is dioecious. I didn’t know this when I planted mine decades ago, but since I put in a few, I apparently got lucky and have at least one male.

With my hollies, specifically the winterberry types or Ilex verticillata and its hybrids, I knew from the start that I needed a male for each grouping of females (various estimates say from 4:1 to 7:1 female-male ratio). Each species and series of hollies has its preferred pollinator(s), so a little homework is needed–though usually the nursery will know or the label will say so. I found this fairly exhaustive list of holly matchups for best pollination, for reference.

Viburnums are another story, and again, having a lot of different species and varieties, rather than only one or several of one kind, has spared me worrying whether I have just the right companion. Individual plants are neither male nor female–all of them can get fruit–but there is an obstacle to them self-pollinating because they tend to be what’s called self-sterile. They’ve got all the parts, it seems, but often to no good effect other than beauty, since they cannot pollinate themselves, or at least not thoroughly in most cases.

That’s why multiple plants that are not the same variety but closely enough related to mate are required–so not just one doublefile, or Viburnum plicatum (such as ‘Shasta’) but also another (a ‘Shasta,’ a ‘Mariesii’ and a ‘Summer Snowflake, for example).

I have some viburnums, such as Viburnum sieboldii, that fruit heavily–even though I have just one plant, and no other individuals in that species in the garden. Hey, I’ll take it, even if I’m not sure why this one has always been so wonderfully cooperative. That is the miracle, and mystery, of genetics at work, right?

A P.S.–A fact sheet on pollination of fruit trees might be what you’re looking for if you didn’t get good fruit set on an apple, pear, peach or cherry. Of course, then there’s the issue of weather–which if it’s lousy enough at blossom time can mean all bets are off, even if you have the right match of trees.

Categoriestrees & shrubs
  1. Melanie Watts says:

    Not only to you need the right match of trees but they have to be close enough together so the insects find them. I’m currently battling the distance issue with my apple, malus, trees.

    1. Margaret says:

      Thanks, Melanie — yes, not just a close-enough-to-cross pollinate match, but also close enough in general (and with no late frosts or other mishaps). It’s a wonder nature manages, right?

  2. Kevin says:

    Hi Margaret , I also enjoy the fruit set on my trees and shrubs not only for the beauty but also for a food source for wildlife. Even when the right pollinator is around fo ensure fruit set weather can throw a curve ball to prevent the beautiful show; a sudden cold snap, rainy weather. diseases and insect damage can all effect the fruit production Timing is everything ! I still enjoy the show however and wouldn’t be without these beauties even in dismal years. Thanks again for a great news letter! Kevin

  3. Joe says:

    I have 8 female winterberry bushes with one male on each end of the grouping. Two of the bushes are covered with berries and the rest are just kind of sparse with only a handful of berries on each. The fact that there are berries would show that it is not the wrong pollinator and thte two with the berries are not the nearest to the males. So it is just one of those “go figure” things. I will hope for better next year.

  4. Kevin says:

    .Hi Joe, Not all Winterberries are alike Watch the spring flower show Are theyBlooming at the same time ? Hollies need to cross-pollinate for fruit production . The bloom sequence is important for cross-pollination and fruit production

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