One shrub which above all others commands attention in the autumn is pyracantha. For striking effects it has no equal, yet is hardly used enough.
Of easy culture, when once established in suitable locations, it lives for years, increasing in size and loveliness and requiring only an occasional shearing.
The name pyracantha is appropriate. It is derived from two Greek words, pyr = fire, and akanthos = thorn.
Anyone who has seen an outstanding specimen in September or October, with its shiny branches literally covered with handsome flame-colored berries in great clusters, will agree that it is particularly well named.
There are several varieties, but the one most generally satisfactory is the laland firethorn (Pyracantha coccinea lalandi), named for a French gardener who raised it originally from seeds.
This is hardier and a more vigorous grower than other varieties. It will withstand lower temperatures, thriving dependably as far north as Long Island and Massachusetts in sheltered situations.
Planting Pyracantha: Individual, Clumps or Hedges
As an individual shrub, placed where it has sufficient space to develop properly, a pyracantha bush is spectacular.
It also makes a splendid showing when three or four are planted in a group about six feet apart, so that they develop ultimately into a huge clump. It looks well when planted close to buildings or when used in the foreground of a massed planting of tall conifers.
When carefully trained over a doorway, it creates a unique and handsome effect.
Interesting When Espaliered
Its habit of growth is such that it forms an interesting pattern when espaliered against a wall, a use to which it is well adapted, though it is pleasing to look at even when not covered with berries. Its shiny, dark green leaves, varying in size, add consider-able charm.
I once saw a planting of pyracantha, which was as effective as it was unusual. Located in a suburban city area surrounding a large, white-painted brick ranch type home.
Across the lower end of the garden, between it and an alley, there was a long wall about five feet high, also of white-painted brick.
The pyracantha had been planted all along the outside of this wall, and trained so that it rioted and tumbled over it into the garden in great masses of color, especially striking against the background of white.
The outside of the wall next to the alley was, of course, a solid mass of vivid color. A double purpose was served here, as the tangled thorny branches would have been very discouraging to prowlers.
Showy In Bloom
Besides its attractiveness when covered with berries, pyracantha makes a showing when in bloom.
The small, dainty white flowers, appearing in May or June, are borne in such profusion that the foliage is often nearly hidden by the clusters of bloom. The flowers are soon followed by tiny green fruits, also in clusters, which mature in late summer.
By mid-September they become a brilliant orange-red and remain so until after Christmas. I know of several old specimens 10 or 12 feet high, which are loaded with brilliantly colored berries every autumn.
They frequently stay firm until the following spring, depending on the severity of the winter.
Whenever possible, the plants should be placed in a protected situation where they will not be unduly exposed to winter winds.
Such protection can sometimes be supplied by buildings or by screen plantings of tall evergreens. The proper setting determines much of the effectiveness of pyracantha, and this should be given careful thought before planting.
Give Sun and Lime
Plenty of sunlight is desirable and a well drained soil, especially limestone, although I have seen plants do well in partial shade and rather heavy soil.
Not exacting in any of its requirements, it will sometimes grow luxuriantly and fruit heavily in rather shady situations. Under such conditions the growth is more open, but still attractive.
It is usually best to start with young plants, preferably those that have been grown in pots, as pyracantha resents root disturbance.
Large field-grown specimens are difficult to transplant, though they can be moved. When this is undertaken the tops should be pruned back severely to help compensate for root disturbance. Spring is generally the best time for transplanting.
A Bird Favorite
Birds are fond of the berries and consume a great many of them, although not usually until they have been softened by freezing.
When used near a feeding station it is interesting to watch the small birds eat the fruits for dessert after they have already gorged themselves at the feeding trays.
With this in mind, it is desirable to have at least one planting of pyracantha so that it can easily be seen from indoors, as it is pleasurable to observe the birds feeding on the berries, especially after a heavy snowfall.
Some of the more tender varieties are interesting and desirable when grown where the winters are mild. One of these is the Formosa firethorn (Pyracantha formosana).
Its brilliant red berries are produced in large, heavy bunches. Another form is known as the golden firethorn (Pyracantha coccinea aurea), with rich yellow berries. Both are useful in mild climates.
Other possibilities of pyracantha include uses in indoor decoration. Before undertaking to handle the sprays, use leather gardening gloves and have at hand a pair of sharp pruners.