Quiet beginnings

by James Alexander-Sinclair

Being a caring fellow, I will ease you gently into a new year of gardening by telling you the story of my pyracantha.

Pyracantha grown as an espalierBeing a caring fellow, I will ease you gently into a new year of gardening by telling you the story of my pyracantha.

Pyracantha - or firethorn - is a much undervalued plant. It's a big spiny shrub, originally from China, and is most usually seen as a rather neglected specimen planted near a fence or boundary. It forms an excellent barrier as it would be a very foolish burglar who tried to climb over a pyracantha - it is on the Metropolitan Police's list of natural protectors.

However, this is not taking full advantage of the adaptability of this plant; it is a shrub that thrives on pruning. You hack a bit off and it will come back at you with ten new shoots. As a result it is easy to shape and can be used as a very effective architectural plant. When we built this house there was a lot of wall either side of the front door and I was looking for a suitable climber. There are basically three sorts of plant that are good for covering walls: self clinging climbers (like Hydrangea petiolaris), climbers that need support (like roses) and shrubs that can be persuaded to do what you tell them to do (like ceanothus).

I decided on the pyracantha (a variety called 'Mojave') and chose to grow it into quite disciplined espaliers. Ten years later and it is one of my great pleasures. The dark green leaves go perfectly with the aged brick, in the spring it is covered with frothy white flowers and come the autumn the branches are laden with red berries. When the hard frosts come we then have a wonderful flurry of blackbirds that descend upon the plants and quickly strip them of berries (not the best photograph but they are very jumpy).

I get a bit fernickety over supporting wires for climbers. I like them to be as tight as guitar strings, so I always use straining bolts attached to vine eyes, which is all very nautical and satisfying. Maintenance is easy - a quick haircut twice a year and tying the shoots into the straining wires with string. A relatively simple way to turn a bit of an ugly duckling into a princess (if you don't mind my mixing up my fairy stories).

Happy New Year to you all - "Lang may yer lums reek."

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Gardeners' World Web User 30/12/2007 at 16:19

I also have a pyracantha on the front of my house, which is now quite big, so have to keep it well trimmed. As well as giving the Blackbirds a good feed in the winter, I have a blackbird build its nest there every year, so have the pleasure of seeing the young birds in the spring time.

Gardeners' World Web User 31/12/2007 at 15:12

I hugely agree that Pyracantha is under-valued. I was once standing behind two old ladies at a nursery and overheard the following exchange:

"What's an Orange Charmer?" asked one.

"David Dickinson?" the other replied.

(It's a cultivar of Pyracantha)

Gardeners' World Web User 02/01/2008 at 16:11

please advise how much and when to prune my pyracantha.

Gardeners' World Web User 03/01/2008 at 10:21

Morning Malcolm. It is easiest if you prune in the summer (after flowering). Just cut back the new growth so that the berry clusters are more visible. If you need to bring an overgrown plant back into order then any time will do - be brutal, it won't mind. I trim mine twice a year: summer and mid winter (after the blackbirds have stuffed themselves).

Thank you Garden Monkey - you never disappoint !

Gardeners' World Web User 06/01/2008 at 00:00

Thank you James for your interesting article about the pyracantha. I have one growing on the front of my house where it gets the blunt of all the bad weather, driving rain and strong north winds. Despite the situation my plant thrives well and produces wonderful flowers and berries (who needs a holly?)

My pyracantha looked wonderful this Christmas with its bright red berries. I have never really understood when to prune either so just snip away at it to keep it from taking over and it has survived so far! I totally agree with James it is a very under valued plant.

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