Pyracantha, Friend or Foe?

Ilona Erwin

The Firethorn Shrub Choice

The firethorn bush, Pyracantha coccinea ‘Mohave’, grows clambering up my house and I love it. I wouldn’t be without this prickly shrub, but it is quite wicked with long thorns all along branches that are stiff and very sharp, and shows no mercy to the unprepared gardener. When working around a Pyracantha, gloves and long sleeves are a necessity.

As a child I used to see a healthy pyracantha trained up a brick house wall along the walk to school. It was almost the height of the second story roof, and it is that picture in my mind that caught my fancy.

Knowing what I now know of its tearing thorns, my memory might not be so kind, but I was a child at the time and the changing colors and beauty of this sight always attracted me.

Bright Orange Berries

It is the firethorn’s autumnal, bright orange berries persisting into winter that first caused me to choose to plant it in my own garden, and now the winter visits of birds in my window are what I most enjoy. Birds love the berries of the pyracantha and take shelter from wintry blasts all through the long cold season of Ohio. The spring bloom is just the icing on the cake.

The leaves, branching, and berries

Pyracantha, commonly called the firethorn bush, is a sprawly, rangy shrub. I have seen some people hack it into hedge shapes of privet-like form, but really that is an atrocity I couldn’t impose upon it. Where would be the beauty of the foam of creamy flowers in the spring, or the gorgeous and gaudy berries in the autumn?

Pyracantha pruned with an espaliera restricted form of training stems and branches method is much more pleasing form. Although it is during pruning that those sharp thorns thorns will get you.

What is “espalier”?

autumn berries

Bright berries for the birds

Thorns, though, do have their uses. They prove to be good barriers where trespassers are not wanted (home security qualities), and give protective cover to birds.

The semi-evergreen leaves are polished and shiny, giving fine texture and the branches are craggy with interesting juts and turns. A fine garden companioncompanion planting from a distance.

Good Color Combinations In The Garden

  • Presently I have some butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa at the feet of the firethorn along with a stand of lily of the valley. The color of the butterfly weed is just the shade of orange as the berries and I’m very happy with the pairing.
  • There are also Echinacea purpurea in that bed, the central cones of the blooms reflect the oranges of the firethorn berries while its warm pink petals contrast without clashing, although their blooms barely overlap in season.
  • Asters in deep purple make a nice contrast to the berries in late summer/early fall. Calendulas are an annual that bloom very late into the growing season and have just the right colors of yellow, apricot, and orange to harmonize with pyracantha shrubs.
  • A tip-off to a good flower combination is to see if one of the companions colors are found somewhere in the stamen or pistil, or as an accent on a petal or sepal, in the other flower.
  • The coneflowers and butterfly weeds are native to prairies, so they get along well together. The lily of the valley is the upstart, but it is a welcome one.
  • The Alchemyst rose is also nearby, with its climbing habit and apricot blooms, but it flowers earlier than the appearance of the orange shades.
Chasmanthe floribunda + Pyracantha

Chasmanthe floribunda + Pyracantha photo by Seán A. O’Hara

How To Grow Pyracantha

  • soil: well drained, tolerates alkaline soil
  • moisture: average, but tolerates drought once established
  • sun: full to part sun
  • hardiness: Zone 5a to 8b

Although we have cold snaps which dip quite low for a pyracantha, the protected site I gave my firethorn shrub, on the leeward side of the house, has resulted in this somewhat borderline hardy plant being quite happy here.

window view

View through the window

Its growth is strong and regularly needs pruning. It is the bane of my husbands effort to paint the house, and we have had to severely cut it back during those years. But It seems to thrive and the birds appreciate it. I think it lends great beauty to the places where the gardener chooses to grow it.

 

Plant Description

  • spring blooms of creamy white
  • leathery, good looking, deep green leaves, small ovate shaped
  • strong, rangy branching system
  • semi-evergreen
  • beautiful berries (berry-like pomes), often orange but sometimes ochre yellow, or red orange
  • height/width: 6-12 feet or more but easily shaped and kept in bounds with pruning
  • naturally upright

 

Choose among numerous varieties of Pyracantha, with size, growth and berry color differences, a collection of Pyracantha named varieties for your landscape.

Fun Facts

Good for birds, providing food and nesting source. Plant one by a window and watch the birds in all sorts of weather.

For more information on pyracantha varieties, their berry color, and hardiness, see this page: Pyracantha Varieties Light Up A Fall Landscape .

Firethorn – Red Cushion

Small Gallery of Photos
More about prairie flowers like coneflowers, mentioned in this post.

Great Plant PickThe Pyracantha ‘Mohave‘ is an Elisabeth Carey Miller Botanical Garden “Great Plant Pick”.

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Ilona Erwin, author

Meet the Author

Ilona Erwin

I started working on this website beginning in 1998, when it was part of Ilona's Reflecting Pool. Since then I've branched out into a number of online endeavors and work at writing lots of content for my sites. "Ilona's Garden" remains my primary site and is dedicated to home gardener's success.