October 2020: Pyracantha

The name “Pyracantha” comes from the Greek “pyr” meaning Fire and “acanthos” meaning thorn, hence the common name Firethorn. They’re a genus of the rose family. Tough and accomodating, they’ll grow happily in any soil from dry through to heavy clay, provided the soil doesn’t become waterlogged and in sun or shade, though berrying may be reduced in shady spots. Grow them as a free-standing shrub, a hedge or trained up a wall or fence (they’ll need to be tied in a bit as they aren’t self-clinging). If they have a downside, it’s found in their vicious thorns which can be anything up to an inch long. Some people report a severe painful reaction to skin piercing by those thorns. The thorns are, perhaps, why they are often used in a barrier hedge.

Some varieties perform better as shrubs whilst others are better as trained climbers – once you’ve decided on the habit you want, it’s relatively easy to find one that fits your needs.

They have two seasons of interest – in late spring/early summer they carry masses of tiny white flowers and then in autumn berries of yellow, orange or red, depending on variety. I’ve found birds really love the berries though, and thus my berrying period can sometimes be short! But if the birds allow, the berries will persist well into winter. The books tell you to give them a late winter feed and cover the surrounding ground with a 3-5cm mulch but I’ve never done either.

Pyracantha flowers

Mine is the variety “Autumn Glow”, with orange berries and growing to around 3 metres each way. I don’t see it in the catalogues these days and it seems to have been superseded by the variety “Orange Glow” which is similar in growth habit but only to about 2 metres each way. It has been trained up the side and across the top of an arbour, providing shade from the sun for me and shelter for birds when the occasional sparrowhawk comes looking for lunch. But all good things must come to an end and the arbour has reached the end of its life. Last year, in readiness for a demolition operation, I cut it free and this year have a 3 metre vertical monster to look at! Having discovered that I own about a metre more width of garden than I thought, and as the existing fence has succumbed to storms, that, and the arbour are now scheduled for removal and the new fence will be a way further back than the current one; which means the arbour must move as well. I don’t know what I’ll replace it with.

Pyracantha berries

Which brings me to the next “benefit” of Pyracantha – they almost always recover from a hard cut-back. I have nothing to lose so I’ll be chopping mine down to about 60cm above ground. OK, it won’t flower or berry next year – they flower on old wood – but, all being well, and with careful pruning ongoing, I’ll have a decent shrub about a metre high in a year or two’s time.