Caren White is a Master Gardener and instructor at Home Gardeners School. She has been associated with Rutgers Gardens for over a decade.
Where I live in New Jersey, we don’t get a lot of snow. Our winter landscape is drab, usually grays and browns. A great way to add color to a drab winter landscape is by planting shrubs that have brightly colored berries. Firethorn shrubs have bright orange or red berries that attract birds adding movement and color to the winter landscape.
What is Firethorn?
Firethorn (Pyracantha coccinea) is a deciduous shrub that is native from southwest Europe through southeast Asia. It is hardy in zones 6 – 9. Newer cultivars are hardy as far north as zone 5. In the warmer parts of its range, the shrubs are evergreen. They are related to roses and like roses have thorns. They make an excellent barrier plant thanks to their thorns. It is recommended that you not use these shrubs in your landscape if you have small children or curious pets because the thorns are hidden in in the foliage.
Firethorns are also known as pyracantha from the Greek words for fire (pyr) and thorn (akanthos). The shrubs are grown for their brightly colored berries, usually orange or red, which appear in the fall and stay on the bushes through the winter. They are an important food source for birds during the winter. The fruit can be safely consumed by humans also, but rarely is because it is very bitter. The seeds should never be eaten because they are poisonous, containing cyanogenic glycosides, which cause digestive upset.
The shrubs themselves grow 10 to 15 feet high and wide. Their habit of growing densely make them the perfect spot for nesting birds to safely raise their young. The shrubs prefer full sun, but will tolerate light shade. White flowers appear in late spring to early summer. Their fragrance is disagreeable. They are followed later in the summer to early fall by berries.
How to Grow Firethorn
Choose a spot in your yard, preferably along the edge where you are less likely to come in contact with the thorns. Full sun is best, resulting in more fruit production. The more shade the bushes receive, the fewer berries they will produce. Firethorn prefers sandy, well-drained soils. Once the shrubs are established, they are drought tolerant. Fertilize sparingly. All that is really needed is a balanced fertilizer applied once a year in the spring.
How to Prune Firethorn
Firethorns grow quickly so they need regular pruning to keep them neat. Pruning should be done after the shrubs have finished blooming. They flower on last year’s growth so if you wait until the fall or the following spring to prune, you will be removing the flower buds. Always remove any dead or diseased branches and then prune them into the desired shape.
How to Grow Firethorn From a Stem Cutting
Firethorn can be propagated by stem cuttings. You should take your cuttings in mid-summer. These are known as semi-hardwood cuttings. Hardwood cuttings are normally taken when the plants are dormant. Soft-wood cuttings are taken in the spring from new branches. Semi-hardwood cuttings are taken in mid-summer from that year’s growth that has started to harden.
Take a cutting that is 3 to 6 inches long. Remove the leaves from the bottom third of your cutting and dip the end in rooting hormone. Gently press the lower third of the cutting into a container of moist soil. Make a humidity tent to help the cutting develop roots by covering the cutting and container with a plastic bag. Place the container out of direct sunlight until the cutting has started to grow new roots, about 6 weeks. You will know that your cutting has roots when it has started to grow new leaves. Plants that don’t have roots cannot grow new foliage.
How to Grow Firethorn From Seed
You can grow a firethorn shrub from seed. In the fall, when the berries have ripened, pick as many as you would like to grow into shrubs. Remove the pulp from the seeds. This is an important step because the pulp of the berry contains chemicals that prevent the seeds from germinating. This is to ensure that the seeds will not germinate too soon in the winter in nature.
Plant your seeds ¼ inch deep in moist potting soil. I always water my soil before planting seeds because I've discovered that if I water after I have planted my seeds, both the soil and the seeds will float away
Cover the container with a plastic bag. Place the plastic covered container in your refrigerator for 3 months. The plastic bag is needed to keep the soil moist. Check it regularly and add water if the soil has started to dry out. This three month chilling in your refrigerator mimics the cold of winter. The seeds will not germinate unless they have experienced a 3 month period of cold. At the end of 3 months, remove the container from your refrigerator and then remove the plastic bag. Place the container in a sunny window. Germination should occur in 1 to 2 weeks. You can plant your seedlings outdoors after your last frost date.
© 2019 Caren White
Marlene Bertrand from USA on November 14, 2019:
I think I have seen these plants growing on the far side of my property. I didn't know what they were. Now, I think I do. I'll take a closer look. I live in zone 9 and see them everywhere. Thank you for the growing advice, especially about pruning after the bloom.