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For most people, gardens are about color, and the most popular plants are always the most colorful. Second is toughness and adaptability – everyone wants to have plants that are tough, that survive a little neglect, and that will grow just about anywhere in the garden. That can be a tall order, but there is one plant that brings a long-lasting display to your garden, and is a true survivor, and very adaptable. Pyracantha, also known as Firethorn, is a shrub that produces a great color display. It does it in fall and winter, when color can be hard to come by, with big clusters of colorful berries in red, orange or yellow. In spring there is a good display of white blossoms, and the glossy leaves always look good. It grows in all light levels except for deep shade, and as an added bonus its thorns make it a top-choice for securing your home from all kinds of intruders.
Perhaps the most popular way to grow Pyracantha is as a hedge. It is very adaptable, and that hedge could be anything from a slender, 3-foot tall planting around a bed or along a fence, all the way to a substantial 6 to 8-foot hedge around your property. The more you trim it, the denser it grows, and unlike many other plants turned into hedges, it still blooms and berries well when trimmed. The thorns also make a Firethorn hedge a substantial barrier to intruders, both four-legged and two-legged.
Secondly, plant the Pyracantha in beds out in the garden. Left to grow naturally it makes a big green shrub for the background of your garden, and the blooms and berries add a lot of interest. Tough, fast-growing and dependable, it fills space admirably, and the glossy leaves always look good too. For an interesting effect – and you can do this with hedges too – mix two or three varieties together, with different berry colors. It makes a great tapestry effect you will love.
Pyracantha is also a good plant for natural areas. Although not an American native shrub, it provides good cover for small mammals, nesting sites and winter food for birds, and flowers for bees and other insects. The seeds can be spread by birds, and this plant has been reported growing wild in a few places, including Texas and California. However, it does not seem to spread much, and only in a few places, and it is not considered to be a serious invasive species by the experts. Therefore, in most areas you can safely plant it in a natural location as a valuable plant.
The most stunning way to grow Pyracantha is on a wall or attached to a tall fence. Grown this way it takes up almost no room, growing perhaps 12 inches thick against the surface. It can easily be trained to surround windows and doors, laying a green carpet over the surface. Both in bloom and when covered in berries it will look exceptional, and literally stop people in their tracks when they see it. Plants can be trained up 15 feet or more, yet they take up almost no garden room at all, so it’s an ideal way to do something spectacular in a small garden, which is often surrounded by walls, or in the space between the street and your home in an urban area. As a valuable bonus, the thorns also make it very difficult to climb through the windows it surrounds.
The main differences between the different kinds of Pyracantha are in the berry colors, although there are some differences in mature height and growing habits too. Most grow between 5 and 12 feet tall and 2 to 6 feet wide, if untrimmed, and they produce many long, flexible stems from the base. Side branches sprout out at sharp angles, giving density, and the stems have straight thorns growing from them These are usually less than 1-inch long, with a sharp point. The bark on all but the oldest wood is smooth, slightly glossy, and an attractive light-gray color.
The leaves of Pyracantha are attractive, and a glossy, rich green. They are oval to oblong, depending on the variety, and between ½ and 2½ inches long. The edges of the leaf has fine serrations along it. In colder areas this plant can be semi-evergreen, and some leaves may fall in winter, making the plant less dense, but in warmer zones it remains green and attractive all year round.
In late winter or spring bunches of milky-white flowers cover the stems. Each flower is small, but there are many in a cluster, which is 2 to 3 inches across, sprouting from the sides of older stems. The individual flowers have 5 flat petals, and they look a little like tiny wild roses, which is not surprising as this plant is in the Rose family, which also makes it related to apple trees. Some people find the scent a little unpleasant, but it is mild and does not spread far. Other people are unaffected.
When the flowers fade you will not notice much, but over the summer they quietly develop, first into tiny green berries. This plant is self-pollinating, and a single bush will produce a full crop of berries. By September or October, the berries will be fully grown, about the size of a pea, and exactly like a tiny apple. Depending on the variety they will be red, orange or yellow, and plants carry big crops of berries, in heavy bunches, making a great display. The berries last for months, right into winter, but eventually birds will discover them, and by late winter they will be gone – just in time for the flowers to return. Although looking like tiny apples, raw berries have little taste. They can however be made into a jelly, like apple jelly – if you enjoy cooking, why not give it a try?
Pyracantha is hardy from either zone 5 or zone 6, depending on the variety you choose. It grows well through all the warmer zones too. This adaptable plant grows in most climates, from moist to dry, and it can be grown successfully across a large part of the country. Note that in zones 5 and 6, it may be semi-deciduous, but will quickly re-leaf in spring.
Full sun is best for this plant, giving the most vigorous growth, and the maximum flowers and berries. However, it is perfectly happy growing in partial shade, especially in warmer zones, and it will grow well, for example, on north facing walls, with a clear sky overhead. It is so tough it will even survive in full shade, but flowering and fruiting will be noticeably reduced.
When it comes to soil, any well-drained soil will suit the Pyracantha. It could be acidic or alkaline, and anything from sand to clay. This plant grows well too in poor, rocky soils, and the poor soil found in urban gardens, which is why it is so widely grown in cities. Once established it is drought tolerant, and frankly this is one very tough shrub.
As with any shrub, digging and enriching the soil will help your young Pyracantha establish itself quickly. Water young plants regularly, and a little fertilizer will be appreciated, but it is not essential.
No particular care is needed for the Firethorn bush, once it is established. Plants can be left to grow naturally or pruned as needed. An occasional deep soaking during very dry weather will be appreciated, but the great thing about this plant is how tough and low-maintenance it can be.
The flowers of the Pyracantha form on short side-shoots growing along older branches. To encourage lots of flowers and berries, shorten new shoots in late summer, and don’t cut back hard, as the vigorous new growth this will encourage won’t flower for a year or two. When pruning the sharp thorns can be a problem, so when you do any serious pruning, wear sturdy gloves, long, thick sleeves, and protective goggles if you are handling long branches. The thorns are sharp, which is why this is such a good security plant, so protection makes sense.
To grow this plant on a wall, begin by planting close to the base of the wall. As the plant grows, tie the long stems back, spreading them out to cover the area you want. You can use nails driven into wood, or between bricks, or attach horizontal wires spaced 18 inches apart across the wall. Use durable materials for tying, and make large loops, so that the stems can expand without being cut into as they grow. Once you have established a basic cover, pruning back new shoots to just a few inches long with give a dense structure, with lots of blooms and berries.
Few pests besides the occasional aphid will bother Pyracantha, but there is a significant disease problem, which has been met by breeding resistant varieties. Two diseases of apple trees can affect the Firethorn – scab and fire-blight. The first is not serious to the health of the plant, but it can damage the look of the berries, which develop thick, brown corky spots on them.
Fire-blight is more serious. This disease causes sudden death of branches, with the leaves and flowers suddenly withering and browning. Large branches may be killed, and the whole plant is threatened once this disease is seen. It is spread by rain and bees from other infected plants – apple or pear trees for example – and it is most severe in areas where damp, wet springs and rainy summers are normal. Fortunately, for areas where it may be a risk, there are several excellent varieties that are resistant to these diseases.
There is some confusion over the toxic properties of the berries of Pyracantha. It is occasionally reported as causing sickness, and this is because while the flesh is edible, if insipid, the seeds, like those of apples, plums and many other fruits, contain precursors of cyanic acid, a toxin. The amount is very small, and a large quantity of seed must be crushed in the teeth and swallowed for any gastro-intestinal symptoms to develop. The same is true of pets, who will rarely bother to eat them anyway. As we mentioned earlier, you can even make jelly from the fruit, since the seeds will be discarded, and even if a child tries a few, no harm will follow.
There are several species of Pyracantha, and many hybrids:
European Firethorn, Pyracantha coccinea – this species is the most common in gardens, and the longest cultivated. It grows across southern Europe and the Middle East, from Spain to Iran. It is less widely grown today, as more disease-resistant varieties have replaced it.
Formosa Firethorn, Pyracantha koidzumii – this species is very rare in its home, the island of Taiwan, but it gives us a great variety, called ‘Victory’, with big red berries and good fire-blight resistance.
Narrow-leaf Firethorn, Pyracantha angustifolia – this Chinese species is rarely grown, but it is an important disease-resistant parent of several hybrids.
Red Elf™ (‘Monelf’) – a unique dwarf hybrid variety just 2 or 3 feet tall, with red berries. Only hardy to Zone 7.
Silver Lining™ (‘Cadvar’) – green leaves with white edges that turn pink in winter. Only hardy to Zone 7.
The US National Arboretum Hybrids – during the 1950s and 60s breeders at the National Arboretum, in Washington, DC, collected many species and varieties of Pyracantha on their grounds. They made crosses between different ones, and then crossed again some of the promising seedlings. They were all examined and tested for their resistance to fire-blight and scab, before being released. They are among the best choices for gardens, especially where those diseases are more common. Most are hardy in zone 5.
With so much to offer, Pyracantha are plants that should be in every garden where they will grow. If you have blank walls and fences to cover, look no further, and for fall and winter color they are simply unbeatable.