By Dan Rahn
University of Georgia
But 40 years later, I have to admit that the neighbors' pyracantha is a beautiful thing. Its white spring flowers are nice, but its glory is its blaze of orange-red berries in the fall and especially winter, when all around it is pretty dull.
"Pyracantha is not as widely used in the landscape as it once was," said Bob Westerfield, a Cooperative Extension consumer horticulturist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
Fire thornIts thorns and brilliant berries give pyracantha its more common "fire thorn" name. The bright berries are actually pomes, like berry-size apples. And they aren't the plant's only selling points.
"There are some popular dwarf cultivars," Westerfield said. "'Red Elf' is a compact plant that normally grows only about 2 feet high and wide and has bright, red fruit. 'Ruby Mound' is another dwarf that gets 4 to 5 feet tall and has, as the name indicates, red fruit and a mounding habit."
Pyracanthas grow well in slightly acidic, well-drained soils, he said. They're fairly drought-tolerant once established, and they're hardy throughout Georgia.
While the berries are its claim to fame, the thorns are "an obvious downside," Westerfield said.
Yeah, the thornsThe thorns limit its use in landscape plantings, as does the size and gangly growth of most cultivars. "They're medium- to fast-growing plants that can reach heights of 6 to 18 feet," Westerfield said.
The rapid growth makes pyracantha anything but low-maintenance. And you have to be careful when you're pruning, which detractors say is every other day. Besides avoiding thorns, you'll want to avoid removing future berries, which grow on year-old wood.
On the other hand, the larger pyracanthas' rapid growth and almost vining habit make them easy to trellis and to espalier, or train to grow flat against a fence or wall. "They can be really striking espaliers on large walls," Westerfield said.
Pyracantha does have another downside. "Because it's in the same family as roses and apples, it's susceptible to fire blight," Westerfield said. This bacterial disease attacks twigs and branches and can kill entire plants.
Scab, tooPerhaps even worse, it's also susceptible to scab, he said. This fungal disease attacks both the foliage and the berries, turning the plant's best feature into sooty black beads.
Lace bugs are the worst insect pests of pyracanthas, he said. Aphids and scale insects are sometimes problems, too.
But pyracanthas make excellent specimen plants, he said, with the two-season appeal of spring flowers and winter berries. They can be great for screening, too. Hardly anything wants to tangle with their thorns.
If you like having birds in your yard, pyracantha's berries are sure to attract them. And if you're into such things, that rapid growth helps make pyracanthas beautiful bonsai plants.
"It's not a plant you'd want to use just anywhere in the landscape," Westerfield said. "But it has its uses."
I don't think I'm up to training an espalier or a bonsai. But Mom might like one of those little Red Elfs in her yard. I'll just mulch a wide, mower-free zone around it.
(Dan Rahn is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)