Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
October, 2004
Regional Report

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I love the pyracantha shrub's fall display.

Pyracantha Pro's and Con's

As often as we caution children not to eat random berries in the landscape, sometimes we err on the side of excessive caution and sometimes safety is paramount. For example, I recently came across a Texan cook's home recipe for pyracantha jelly. It surprised me that these berries were even considered edible because "sour" is truly the operative word here. Also, the University of California Cooperative Extension plant toxicity list classifies pyracantha as causing minor illnesses, such as vomiting and diarrhea (call your doctor or poison control if ingested), as well as dermatitis.

The Cornell University list of toxic plants does not include pyracantha, but either way I don't think I would recommend making (or eating) pyracantha jelly. I do, however, like the plant in the landscape.

As a member of the Rosaceae family, pyracantha is botanically related to both apples and roses. (So I suppose the idea of making jelly is not really so farfetched.) If you look closely at the berries (technically called a "pome" as is the apple), they do resemble miniature apples, albeit more often colored like mini pumpkins rather than your typical red delicious.

The common name, firethorn -- reminiscent of jaggedly thorny roses -- is quite apt. The spines on this plant are big and sharp and serve as another strong deterrent to harvesting the berries. It is so thorny, in fact, that the plant is often suggested for planting as a barrier hedge -- meaning it gives off a definite "Keep out!" message.

Firethorn at its Best
I think firethorn is at its most attractive when trained against a wall as an espalier. It takes well to the necessary pruning, and the brightly colored berries and deep green foliage create a lovely contrast against a brick wall. In the fall a pyracantha loaded with berries looks spectacular against gray siding, too.

This is a great plant for a sunny, well-drained location, but in climates where it is marginally hardy you will want to protect it from winter winds. Although considered evergreen, it may discolor and/or defoliate by midwinter in colder areas. That factor, along with the thorns, is why I am happy to let my neighbors grow it instead of me!

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