Pyracantha berries in October

Pyracantha:  Love it or hate it.   Most of us have a strong opinion about this fast growing shrub.

We love Pyracantha  for its beautiful fall berries, more correctly called “pomes”, which turn bright red, red orange, orange, or yellow, depending on the cultivar, in autumn.  The berries are beautiful in the landscape, in cut flower arrangements and wreathes; and they attract songbirds.  Cedar waxwings, cardinals, blue jays, and many other back yard birds feast on the berries in late autumn.   Considered poisonous for humans, the berries are mildly hallucinogenic for birds.


This Pyracantha shrub is over 15 feet tall and wide.

Pyracantha, closely related to Cottoneaster, is beautiful espaliered against a wall;  grown as a hedge or against a privacy fence;  or even grown as ground cover on a bank.  Its beautiful white spring flowers are an important source of nectar for bees and other nectar loving insects.  Its evergreen leaves are neat and look good year round.  Its dense, thorny habit provides great cover for birds and gives them very secure nesting sites.

These are Pyracantha’s good qualities, and reasons why I like having it in the garden.

Now, the bad:  Pyracantha is very large; is covered with very long, sharp thorns; and grows with a mind of its own.  It is a fast grower, and so may need trimming back several times in a season to keep it in check if grown near your home.  Since it blooms and sets fruit on old wood, hard pruning may mean sacrificing the berry crop for the coming year.  Once pruned, it sends up new growth in many directions at once.  You almost need “staff” to look after it properly if you want to keep it manicured.  Some varieties will reseed around the garden.  If grown near pathways, its thorns may reach out to grab you, which brings us back to its positive qualities.

October 17 2013 monarch bf 014Those same thorns which make it difficult to prune, also make it an excellent hedging plant.  If you want extra security around the perimeter of your property, Pyracantha is an excellent choice.  I once had a garden which backed along a busy neighborhood thoroughfare.  Although I had an 8′ privacy fence, I also planted shrubs on both the inner and outer sides of that fence.  Azaleas and Camellias went on the outside visible from the street, but I  grew some Pyracantha on the inside where it might be tempting to climb across.  Pyracantha grown along fences and property lines can reinforce boundaries against humans, deer, neighborhood dogs, and others you might want to discourage.

Hardy in Zones 5-9, Pyracantha grows well in a variety of soils and in anything from full sun to partial shade.  There is more berry production in good sunlight, but the plant tolerates a wide range of conditions.  Native to parts of Europe and Asia, Pyracantha is definitely an import in the United States.  It is one of those plants where many hybrids and cultivars are available to suit your need for size, growth habit, and berry color.  Once it is established, it’s drought tolerant and hardy, with few problems from disease or insects.  It doesn’t need fertilizer or any special care.

Pyrancantha berries, just beginning to turn color.

Pyrancantha berries, just beginning to turn color.

One of the nicest things is the ease with which Pyracantha roots.  I’ve taken stem cuttings in late spring (also called “prunings”), dipped the lower cut into rooting hormone, and simply stuck them a few inches into the soil where I wanted a new shrub to grow.   This is how I cultivated a hedge along that privacy fence.  After watering them in, I just kept an eye on them until new growth appeared.  Not every cutting rooted, but enough did that the purpose was served.   Keep in mind that most commonly available cultivars will grow to between 10′ and 20′ tall within five years.  If left alone, most will also get quite wide.  In fact, I am planning to take cuttings from my current plants, and hope to establish a lovely thorny hedge in the areas of the garden where the Bambis still try to penetrate our barriers.  Pyracantha is one of those shrubs we haven’t seen them grazing.

So we choose to love Pyracantha, but also keep a healthy distance from it.  I’m not a native plant purist, and so appreciate its benefits in a wildlife friendly forest garden.  We love its beautiful berries, and we love seeing the crazed antics of the birds eating them.  It is an utterly undemanding, unfussy, dependable shrub; and it shines in autumn when its berries brighten and its green leaves hang on tight into the winter.

A branch of Pyracantha berries which will ripen for the birds and turn orange in late October.

A branch of Pyracantha berries in mid-summer.

All photos by Woodland Gnome 2013

About woodlandgnome

Lifelong teacher and gardener.

9 responses to “Pyracantha

  1. Erik

    Hi, great article on Pyracantha! I’ve read elsewhere that the berries are not poisonous to humans and can be made into jam. I’m wondering if different strands have different berry qualities, do you know what strand you have? I just planted some of the Mohave strand in my forest garden.

    • Hi Erik, I’ve done a little research on Pyracantha to answer your question. Here is an excellent site from North Carolina Extension:

      From what I’m reading, it is actually the seed in the ‘pome’ (fruit) which carries poisonous substances. Some people make jam with the berries, straining out the seeds. Pyracantha is a member of the rose family, and as some people cook with rose hips, one could prepare foods with Pyracantha berries. I wouldn’t pick a handful to munch unless there was little else around to eat. If you cook with them, please let me know what you think. The Pyracantha shrubs we have were growing here when we bought the property and I’ve not done a lot of exploration in this genus. There are some very nice hybrids available. They make good screens and barriers in sunny spots, but they can be challenging to keep pruned into an attractive form. Wishing you a beautiful day! WG

  2. Sally

    Can birds harm themselves on Pyracantha thorns ?

    • That is a wonderful question. Birds seem to negotiate around thorns on all sorts of shrubs and trees in order to eat the berries. I would assume they are small enough, and cautious enough, to be OK.

  3. Forest So Green

    Sounds like this plant has a mind of its own!

  4. farseems

    Would love a cutting or two, pls.

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