Horticulture Magazine

Pyracantha Shrub Care & Growing Tips

pyracantha firethorn with bright orange berries

Pyracantha Overview

Official Plant NamePyracantha
Common Name(s)Firethorn
Plant TypeShrub
Native AreaEurope, South-East Asia, China and Taiwan
Hardiness RatingH6
ToxicityToxic
FoliageEvergreen
FlowersWhite flowers, bright orange/red berries
When To SowJanuary, February, March, October, November, December
Flowering MonthsJuly, August, September
When To PruneMarch, April
Sunlight

Preferred
Full Sun / Partial Shade

Exposure
Exposed or Sheltered

Size

Height
2.5 – 4M

Spread
2.5 – 4M

Bloom Time
July – August

Soil

Preferred
Most Soil Types

Moisture
Moist but well drained

pH
Any

Pyracantha is an ornamental, evergreen shrub, characterised by its flaming red and orange berries, and sharp thorns – hence its other name, firethorn.

It also produces cream-coloured blooms in spring, making it a great way to introduce colour to your garden year-round.

This is a fully hardy climbing plant, which grows well in a UK climate. It makes an attractive and low-maintenance addition to almost any garden, and can be grown either as a freestanding shrub, or trained to grow along a wall or fence.

It also makes an excellent choice for a hedging plant – it’s fast-growing, has dense, evergreen foliage, and can reach heights of 4 metres if left unchecked. Plus, its sharp thorns work to deter unwanted visitors from entering your property!

If you’re considering adding pyracantha to your garden – or perhaps you’ve inherited one and want to know what to do with it – read on for our best pyracantha care and growing tips, to ensure your new firethorn will come out in a blaze of glory.

Background, Origins & Varieties

Pyracantha is native to Europe, South East Asia, China and Taiwan. There are several species within the genus, which is part of the rose (Rosaceae) family. It is a dense, evergreen shrub that grows quickly, and has been cultivated as a hedging plant since the 1500s.

The plant produces white or cream-coloured blooms in spring and red, orange or yellow berries in autumn and winter. The largest varieties can grow to around 4m x 4m in size. Due to its size, density and sharp thorns, it is often considered a form of security.

pyracantha firethorn with its bright white spring flowers
Pyracantha produces white flowers in spring and summer

Whilst discouraging unwanted guests, pyracantha is also great for tempting more wildlife into your garden. The spring blooms attract pollinators, whilst the red berries of autumn appeal to birds. The thorns also provide protection for any native wildlife nesting or sheltering within its foliage.

Some varieties are more suited to being freestanding, whilst others are better for training and hedging. For example, Red Column is a particularly fast-growing, thorny variety, with bright red berries and a maximum height of 3m, all of which makes for a great hedge. Santa Cruz Prostrata is smaller, reaching 1.5m, and is well-suited to container growth or ground cover.

There are also newer varieties of pyracantha that have been bred to be resistant to some of its most common diseases. For example, the Golden Charmer and Teton varieties are resistant to pyracantha scab, and the Saphyr series is resistant to both this and fireblight.

Feeding, Care & Growing Tips

Pyracantha can be planted year-round, although the best time is in the autumn or winter months. Try to find a sunny or partially shaded spot for it, as full shade will hamper berrying. It can tolerate high and low temperatures, (down to -15°C), as well as wind – although again, this may hamper growth.

Pyracantha will grow in most soils, but it prefers a fertile, deep loam – prior to planting, enrich the soil with a bucket of well-rotted manure and a balanced fertiliser, mixing it in with a garden fork. You can also feed the plant annually with a similar mix in spring.

To transplant into the soil from a container, dig a hole twice as large as the plant’s roots, then place it in at the same depth it was in the pot, and re-fill in the hole. If you’re planting it as a hedge, position plants approx. 50 – 75cm apart.

You should water frequently during the growing stages. Once the plant is established, it requires little maintenance, and will likely only need to be watered during particularly dry spells. It does not like to be waterlogged, as it is susceptible to root rot, so the soil should have good drainage. Add coarse grit to a heavy or clay soil if necessary.

Habitat & Growing Conditions

The natural habitat of pyracantha stretches from south-east Europe and the Mediterranean to south-east Asia. The plant is well-accustomed to high daytime temperatures, and low night-time ones. It can tolerate partial shade, but will flower and berry best when grown in full sunlight.

Pyracantha grows in all soil types, including clay soil, as long as it has good drainage. The plant is hardy to drought, but does not like to be waterlogged, so prefers its soil to be too dry rather than too wet.

Pruning Pyracantha

The best time to prune pyracantha is in spring, after blossoming, to reduce the impact on flowering and berrying wood. You will be able to clearly see which shoots are old, non-flowering growth – cut back around a third of these, as well as flowering shoots to 3 leaves above each bloom. You can also prune again in summer, once the berries have appeared.

If pruning prior to flowering, be aware that pyracantha flowers mostly on year-old shoots, meaning you should try not to trim away all the previous year’s growth. However, if you need to drastically prune back an out-of-control pyracantha, you should do so – the flowers and berries can be relied upon to return the following year.

Bright red Pyracantha berries on year-old shoots
Pyracantha berries on year-old shoots

Similarly, if any of the plant’s shoots have been damaged by fireblight or blackened by pyracantha scab, you should prune away the affected areas. Always wear thick gloves when pruning, to protect your hands from the plant’s large, sharp thorns, and be careful not to disturb any nesting birds.

If you are training pyracantha to grow against a wall or fence, or over an arch, you can also take this opportunity to tie new shoots gently along a trellis. See FAQs below for more information on how to espalier (wall train) pyracantha.

Where To Buy Pyracantha

Pyracantha is a popular plant in the UK and is widely available. You can purchase seeds or cuttings from garden centres, specialist growers or online retailers. Note that if buying seeds, they will require 3 months of cold stratification before they will germinate.

If, as is advisable, you are buying a potted plant for transplanting, look for one with a good shape, and a decent colouring of berries, indicating a healthy plant. Check it over to make sure there are no signs of pests or disease.

There are many varieties of pyracantha, and you can choose based on whether you want to grow it freestanding, trained or as a hedge, as well as what colour of berries you want. You may also like to seek out a species that is resistant to common diseases, such as the Saphyr series.

Common Diseases & Problems

There are several diseases that are common to pyracantha. Pyracantha scab is a fungal disease that causes unsightly black spots on the shrub’s leaves and berries, shrivelled flowers, and leaf and flower dropping. If you notice any of these symptoms, you should cut back the infected parts (even though this will mean fewer flowers the following year).

You should also ensure that any infected material, such as fallen leaves and berries, is raked up and removed from the garden, as this is how the fungus survives over winter. In severe cases, use of an appropriate fungicide may also be required.

Another common problem is fireblight. This is a bacterial disease that thrives in wet and warm weather. It kills shoots, wilts flowers, and causes your plant to take on a ‘scorched’ appearance, with browned wood and cankers.

Treatment is non-chemical only, and involves pruning the affected branches back to expose healthy wood, and removing any remaining new flowers before they open (as this is how the bacteria enters the inner bark). Both pyracantha scab and fireblight will ravage the plant from spring to autumn.

Common pests include the pyracantha leaf-mining moth, and aphids. The leaf-mining moth lays its eggs on the plant, and the caterpillars then feast on its leaves from the inside, causing silvery ‘mines’ of discolouration.

This is most likely to occur during late winter to early spring. Whilst it may look unsightly, most of the affected leaves will drop off and be replaced in spring, and the process has little effect on the overall health of the plant.

Lack of berries is also often reported by pyracantha growers. This is usually a result of unfavourable growing conditions, such as frost or cold weather, drought or lack of food. Make sure to water your plant during dry spells, and try adding a high-potassium plant feed to the soil in spring.

Frequently Asked Questions

How fast does pyracantha grow?

The plant grows quickly, which is partly what makes it such a suitable hedging plant. In ideal growing conditions, you can expect growth of up to 60cm each year. If left unchecked, a single pyracantha plant can reach up to 4m high and 4m wide.

How can I espalier (wall train) pyracantha?

To espalier pyracantha, you should first fix horizontal wires across your wall, so you have something on which to attach the plant limbs. Plant your pyracantha approximately 50cm away from the wall, in springtime.

Using soft plant ties or twine, tie the centre shoots vertically up the wall, and the side shoots at a 45° angle. Allow the plant to grow over summer, then re-direct the shoots horizontally in autumn.

Are pyracantha berries poisonous to cats?

Pyracantha berries are very attractive to animals and pets, however they do contain a small amount of hydrogen cyanide. The consumption of a large quantity of berries may therefore cause gastronomical distress to cats, producing symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhoea.

Opinion is mixed as to whether the berries are toxic enough to cause serious harm, if enough are consumed. If you have a cat, or cats frequent your garden, it might be best to choose a different hedging shrub, for peace of mind.

Can you prune a pyracantha in winter?

The ideal time to prune your plant is in spring, after flowering, as you will be able to clearly see which shoots to leave, and which are old growth that is no longer flowering and berrying.

However, you can also prune in winter – just be aware that the plant flowers on year-old shoots, and if you remove all the previous year’s growth, your plant may not bloom very well that spring.

Can I grow pyracantha in a pot?

Yes, you can grow pyracantha in a pot or container – most plants start out this way before being transplanted to soil. If you want to keep your plant in a container, choose a smaller variety that is suited to container growth, such as the Santa Cruz Prostrata, and plant it in a large pot, with good drainage.

Container-grown plants will require regular feeding and watering – although make sure that the soil never becomes waterlogged. Prune the plant annually to prevent it from outgrowing the container.

A potted pyracantha coccinea bonsai tree with red berries
Potted pyracantha coccinea bonsai tree

Can you take cuttings from the plant?

Yes, you can take cuttings from pyracantha, and this is a relatively easy process. Always wear gloves, to protect yourself from the needle-like thorns. Take cuttings during spring and summer, and choose stems that are just starting to turn woody. Pinch the tip, and divide it into approx. 10cm cuttings, with each cut just above a leaf node.

Remove the lower leaves, then dip the base of the cutting in a rooting hormone, and plant it in a pot filled with compost and sand. Make sure the pot has at least one drainage hole. Water thoroughly, cover the pot with a plastic bag, and leave it in a warm, protected area, out of direct sunlight.

Keep checking on your cuttings, and water them weekly. After about a month, new roots should develop, at which point you can remove the plastic covering. Keep watering them, and your cuttings will be ready to transplant outside the following spring.

What are some alternatives to pyracantha?

Similar hedging plants to pyracantha include leylandii and laurel. These plants grow faster than pyracantha, so are a good choice if you need to establish a hedge quickly. They also don’t have the sharp thorns of pyracantha. If you want thorns for security, try hawthorn or blackthorn.

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