Pyracantha coccinea growing in espalier form (what does espalier mean, you ask? Keep reading!)
Red winter berries galore! What evokes a more festive winter spirit than a glowing fireplace and glowing red berries? Welcome back to another installation in our horticultural series about excellent landscape plants with fiery red winter berries. This week we will take a look at the sultry firethorn!
Prized for its lovely red berry clusters in fall and winter, Pyracantha coccinea, also known as the firethorn or scarlet firethorn, adds year round aesthetic appeal to the landscape with its showy white flower clusters, arching growth habit, and, of course, its profundity of red berries.
Every rose has its thorn. Pyracantha coccinea is not a rose, however it is in the rose family (Rosaceae) and has the thorns to prove it. These thorns and the plant’s rapid, spreading growth habit make this beauty an excellent landscape plant to hedge off deer and busybody neighbors alike. Let’s take a closer look…
Much like your first true love, the red berries are stunning, but can you see the thorns?
Pyracantha coccinea (firethorn) basics:
- Perennial woody shrub
- 6 – 18 ft tall, 6 – 20 ft wide (there are varieties, such as Pyracantha coccinea ‘Lowboy’ that stay smaller, 2 – 3 ft tall, 6 -8 ft wide)
- Growth habit (plant form): arching, erect, open
- Fast growth rate
- Evergreen (semi-evergreen in cooler climates – which is not Southern California, unless you live at a high elevation)
- The flowers have a fragrance, which is considered unpleasant by some
- Flower: showy white clusters of small flowers
- Blooming season: Spring and summer
- Fruit: Orange to red/burgundy, showy clusters of berries which are less than 1 inch in size. They appear in fall and can persist into winter, attracting birds.
Showy white flowers of Pyracantha coccinea
Native Area and Horticultural History
There are thought to be around ten species of Pyracantha (the genus name) native to Asia and Europe. Pyracantha coccinea has a native range from southern Europe to the Caucasus Mountains in Western Asia.
There are fossil records of Pyracantha from the Pleistocene epoch (often referred to as the Ice Age – roughly 2,580,000 to 11,700 years ago) found in the United Kingdom. This appears to indicate that temperature ranges were warmer in that region during that period, however Pyracantha has been reintroduced and is a common landscape plant today.
Pyracantha coccinea was introduced to Central Europe as a landscape plant in the early 1600s, being present in Austria by 1623, and the UK (once again) by 1629.
It was introduced to North America as an ornamental landscape plant during the 1700s.
Pyracantha coccinea in its more natural hedge form
There is some evidence of Pyracantha coccinea’s invasiveness in various states in the US, including California. This is somewhat disputed due to a lack of confirming evidence. In California, it is considered a ‘waif’ plant, meaning it is not able to survive and reproduce without human interference.
Some concern on the potential invasiveness of this plant comes from its rapid growth rate and ability to shade out other plants, especially low growing natives. The red berries are edible by many birds meaning that seeds can be spread through their digestive cycle, adding to its potentiality of uncontrolled spreading, however, again, the evidence is scant, and this should not be a general concern to the horticultural community and landscape planting (at least until more evidence is shown of invasiveness).
Pyracantha coccinea is prized for its growth habit; tall and spreading (unless it’s a smaller variety or cultivar). This landscape plant proudly announces itself reaching out to the heavens (or the closest wall), making Pyracantha coccinea an excellent hedge and barrier plant.
The leaves tend to be 1 – 3 inches and are elliptic to lanceolate in shape with a pleasant rich green color.
The arching form of Pyracantha coccinea
Red Berries for a Beautiful Landscape
Pyracantha coccinea is most known for its red berries, that appear in fall and often last through winter, unless the birds eat them all. You should be happy to share them with our avian friends, because they are not particularly edible by humans (more about that below), and these fruits can provide a valuable food source to help the local bird population. These plants also make excellent nesting areas. Who doesn’t like to wake up to birdsong in the garden? And please remember, people pay good money for fertilizer made from bird droppings.
The leaves and fruit contain small amounts of hydrogen cyanide, which is also found in almonds, given them their characteristic flavor. This toxin, however, gives this plant a very bitter taste, but would need to be consumed in large quantities to be lethal.
Pyracantha coccinea, a fan favorite in the landscape. Come on, how cute is this?
Jellies & Jams
Although the berries have a very bitter, unpleasant taste to humans (when raw), they can be cooked down and the juice extracted. Add a bunch of sugar (there are actual recipes out there) and there you have it; non-toxic Pyracantha coccinea jam. I’ve read it tastes similar to apple jam, which I’ve also never had. Have I really lived?
Pyracantha coccinea is commonly used as a hedge plant. It can be sheared to create formal hedges (wall-like plant structures with shaped edges) or informal hedges when left to grow in their natural shape. Smaller Pyracantha varieties and cultivars can be used as groundcover, especially in areas where you want to discourage foot traffic, due to the thorns.
Pyracantha coccinea makes for an excellent landscape plant even if not used as a hedge. Individual plants (or a small grouping) can showcase their long, arching growth habit which becomes visually stunning when in bloom and/or bearing the bright, colorful fruit.
- Full sun (6 or more hours of direct sunlight a day) to partial shade (direct sunlight only part of the day, 2 -6 hours)
- Supplemental water 1x per week unless it is raining, sometimes more frequent irrigation in summer to keep full, or if it is in a container – Pyracantha coccinea likes moist, but not soggy, soil. Drip irrigation is well suited for this plant.
- Susceptible to fireblight, which is a bacterial infection, that can affect the growth in spring. It can spread fairly readily between plants. Signs of fireblight include wilting, browning, and blackening of growth, which can make the plant appear to have been burned, hence the name. Infected areas should be removed and destroyed. There are also antibiotics available.
- Pyracantha coccinea tends to do best in somewhat sandy, well draining soils, however they can thrive in many types of soil, with evidence of them doing well in heavier, moisture holding soils.
- Pyracantha coccinea is often used in the landscape as a hedge or border plants, however they can also make excellent specimen plants, showcasing their arching form for dramatic effect.
- The flowers attract bees and other pollinating insects, while the berries attract birds, making this a good plant to help support local wildlife. These plants are also deer resistant, making them an excellent choice in areas heavily populated by deer.
- USDA Hardiness zone (ability to survive cold temperatures and frost): 6 – 9 (much of Los Angeles is 10, however Pyracantha is a common landscape plant in our region, and often grows very well)
- Generally, this plant does not need fertilizer, however adding a balanced fertilizer once in spring can sometimes improve health and appearance
- Propagation can be done with cuttings and many reports say it is generally a fairly easily propagated plant
- For specimen firethorn plants, landscape lighting can add an incredibly dramatic effect, showcasing their arching form (actually that would make a great decoration for Halloween).
Once again, those showy flowers. We can’t get enough!
Pyracantha coccinea often grows fairly fast. If you want it kept as a formal hedge, it can be trimmed or sheared frequently, however this will remove much of the flowers and red berries.
For a more natural appearance, which can still be used as a hedge, light pruning once a year will promote a thick and healthy form.
It is best to prune the plant after blooming to avoid removing the buds. Heavy pruning will reduce the production of blooms (and berries) for the following year.
If the plant must be heavily pruned, it is best done towards the end of winter.
Flowers in a more formal hedge (the presence of flowers show it is not regularly sheared)
Berries in a more formal hedge (the presence of berries show it is not regularly sheared)
Espalier is a horticultural practice of trimming and tying branches to a frame. This is often used for aesthetics in many home gardens, however the practice was introduced as a way to more readily grow and harvest fruit, of which one could do for Pyracantha coccinea, however there’s not much of a market for the berries.
Aesthetically, Pyracantha coccinea does make for a beautiful espalier form.
Pyracantha coccinea makes a particularly beautiful espalier plant while flowering and fruiting
What’s in a Name?
‘Pyracantha’ comes from the combination of two Greek words; ‘pyr’ meaning ‘fire,’ (think funeral pyre) and ‘akanthos’ or ‘ankanthi,’ meaning ‘thorn.’
Firethorn, which in English is a common name for this plant, is a reference to the plant’s red berries and the thorns that adorn it. Also, perhaps, some ancient person travelling through Persia found out the hard way that this plant burns you like fire (metaphorically speaking) if you accidently brush up against its spikes.
The species epithet, ‘coccinea,’ is Latin for ‘scarlet,’ a nod to the colorful berries of Pyracantha coccinea.
DO YOU have Pyracantha coccinea in your landscape? We want to see them! Please send us a picture and we will happily feature it in a blog article! We do love our California plants, but we don’t discriminate! All are welcome! Send those beauties to [email protected], thank you.
Thank you for joining us again in this week’s horticultural adventures. Please come back next Wednesday for out next blog post, and as always, contact us for all your landscape needs!
By Daniel Williams
Client Liaison for Creative Concepts Landscape
Monrovia Growers – Offering a wide range of plants for the landscape. Although they deal with nurseries and wholesale only, you can still peruse their website for inspiration!
Nick’s Nursery – A San Fernando Valley nursery with a nice selection and good prices.
Armstrong (La Canada) – Offering a range of natives and climate appropriate plants, along with more water intensive classics.