Hardwood evergreen shrub
"The copious quantities of berries produced by Pyracanthas can become the object of desire for birds"
Known to some as the firethorn, this plant is native to the area from the Mediterranean Sea to Western China. As you might expect from a member of the Rosaceae (rose) family, it is both attractive and thorny. As a garden shrub it is available in many species and varieties, sharing the common features of dark green glossy leaves (ranging from oval to spear-shaped, one to two inches long), two-inch clusters of small white to cream flowers and small yellow to red fruit measuring about a quarter of an inch (5mm) diameter. Oh, and sharp spines.
In the wild, it grows in sunny, warm and dry climates, but has adjusted well to a variety of climates as a very popular addition to gardens throughout the world, even managing to spread in the wild in some parts of North America.
Cultivating the Pyracantha
In the garden, it is frequently trained on an espalier as its growth habit is generally untidy, new shoots seemingly growing at random from the base. Left unchecked, it will grow anything up to 15 feet (5 metres) high and ten feet (2 metres) across, in a fairly hideous sprawl. To keep it under control, it needs dramatic pruning (don't worry about pruning new growth, it flowers from old wood) and almost continual thinning.
The flowers (usually creamy in colour) appear in mid-Spring in temperate zones (May in the UK), and the berries begin to form fully in the late autumn. When in full flower, the plant can be almost totally covered in bloom and the masses of fruit can attract birds (which are particularly attracted to the darker fruit, yellow fruiting shrubs being left alone).
There are many species, and different varieties, hybrids and cultivars - it is worth seeking out in your local nursery or garden centre.
A properly maintained Pyracantha can be a beautiful addition to any garden, whether as a standalone shrub, or trained against a wall. Despite its preference for sunny and dry conditions, it is comfortable in partial shade (although flowers and fruit are naturally less prolific), although it does seem to be fussier about the soil, which should be open and well-drained. It is fairly hardy, coping well with frost (although new growth may be limited following a hard winter), and can find a place in many gardens.
It seems to be hardy in other ways, being resistant to many of the problems which may plague lesser plants. Its few enemies are aphids and scale insects and spider mites, all of which can damage the young growth, and the bacteria of fire blight, which can devastate a plant should it take hold. In some areas, fungal scab can be a problem, which can be treated in your favoured fashion.
So, what else should I know?
As well as being attractive, the shrub shares many qualities of the rose, but to a lesser degree - the flowers on most species are attractive and quite fragrant, the fruit (like the rose hip) is edible and can be used in many recipes (see below). Oh, and it is thorny (did I mention this?), and although the spines are neither as numerous or fierce as on most roses, care is still needed when pruning - gloves are required (I speak from slightly painful and itchy experience).
As mentioned in the quote above, the berries are much-loved by birds, and will frequently survive long enough to provide valuable food for them in the winter season. But our avian friends are not alone in their appreciation of the fruits. Mankind in his infinite wisdom has seen fit to add the pyracantha to his long list of edibles.
One recipe I came across in my research was for a pyracantha jelly. To make it, simply put a half a gallon (2.5 litres) of the berries in a pan with two pints (a litre) of water and simmer for twenty minutes, then strain off the juice. For each pint and a half (.7 litre) of the juice, add 5 fluid ounces (0.1 litre) of lemon juice and two and a half pounds (1 kilogram) of sugar and bring to the boil, then add a small bottle of liquid pectin, then boil hard for a minute. Skim off any unwanted froth and pour into glasses or jars.
The more adventurous of you may seek out recipes for wines and preserves - I would be interested to know how those turn out!