"We sat under an old thorn-tree
And talked away the night,
Told all that had been said or done
Since first we saw the light."
-William Butler Yeats
This big old shrub was on the property long before we bought the place, & for some while I never figured out what it was. I thought it was some strange sort of hawthorn, which have scores of species. But finally someone informed me it was a Firethorn (Pyrocantha coccinea), which suddenly seemed rather obvious once I'd been informed.
In retrospect it was silly to get fixated on the idea that it might be a hawthorn, as it only superficially resembled our Russian Hawthorns, with the following considerable differences: 1) The leaves are elongated & pointed & evergreen, rather than deeply cut & ferny & deciduous; 2) the berries do look like hawberries but sightly compressed & more to the side of orange than red; 3) late May's white flowers look like those of hawthorns & chokeberries & any number of other rose-family shrubs or trees, but smaller & comparatively less conspicuous than on the hawthorns, & only lasting about two weeks; & finally, 4) the thorns of our Russian hawthorns are nasty enough, but on the Firethorn thorns were two to four inches long, & sharper than the dickens.
Large birds like the berries in winter, as they become less tart after a few mild frosts have hit them. The berries otherwise last on the branches from September ripening to the very end of winter. The berries for human diet are vastly too tart to eat off the branches, but various species within the genus have served as back-up famine produce in places throughout the world. And if prepared as jellies they are extemely pallatable; given a good enough recipe, they are the equal of jellies made from the rowan berries of Mountain Ash.
As with tart cotoneaster drupes & hawberries, flamethorn berries can be harvested near winter after a couple of hard frosts when they are the least horrid when raw, or harvested earlier in autumn (especially if there will be bird competition for them later on) & the tartness artificially frosted out of them by keeping them in the freezer a day or two then thawed before further preparation.
They are then steamed or boiled for about 20 minutes, drained, mashed through sieve to remove skins & in particular the largish seeds (some folks will prefer to extract only the juice through a cheesecloth). Like apple seeds & cherry pits, pyracantha seeds are toxic, but rumors that the fruit itself is toxic if ever true at all is only true when the fruit is very green. Mix the sieved juice & pulp with any extremely sweet fruit juice syrup together with pectin. Heat to near boil to can in mason jars, sealed with parafin before lidding. The pectin can be purchased in packets, or obtained naturally by boiling down the skins of tart autumn/winter berries or crabapples or green apples.
For exact ratios, check standard recipes for similar fruits, but be imaginative in adapting, & draw on your own or your mom's experiences. The basics of preparing tart rose-family berries of all sorts applies identically to crabapples & green apples, & you should be able to adapt your favorite recipes interchangeably. Everyone does it a bit different, sometimes adding a few tablespoons of lemon juice or vinegar or grapefruit squeezings or lime. Or for more of a Thanksgiving sauce, prepare with spices as for cranberries. Vitamin C is high in pyracantha jellies or sauces & can be upped still further by including a few sieved rosehips.
Another method of using rowans or hawberries or firethorn berries is to mix any such types of tart drupes with extremely sweet apples. Follow any favorite applebutter recipe to end up with a version that will be mildly rather rather than excessively tart. It is also not inappropriate to make a pure pyracantha jelly, although that takes an awful lot of pure sugar, & it's just much healthier to use a very sweet juice or syrup. Home wine makers can also use Firethorn berries.
A final use worthy of note is for pet parrots & aviaries. Birds are never harmed by the toxins in the seeds & love well-ripened drupes or berries (in full color with tartness reduced by frosts) of hawthorn, mulberry, rowan, cotoneaster, crabapple, & pyracantha.
P. coccinea is native to southern Europe but has been gardened in northerly climates for centuries, introduced to English gardening in 1629. It is fully evergreen in USDA zones 7 through 9, but will adapt even to zone 5 though it will suffer winter leafburn or become semi-deciduous. Some cultivars have been bred for increasing cold hardiness.
As everything above conveys, there's much good to say about this popular species. Even so, I was faced with a major decision as to whether to remove it from the garden. If I'd planted this myself it would not have gone amidst so many other large shrubs & trees where its truly menacing thorns become a danger during normal garden care. I might've planted it on the roadside where it could have had room to spread out into a rounder shrub.
Many gardeners seem to prefer them for their ease of training to an espalier, so that any part that grows away from a wall into the way of things can be clipped back. They are first choices to espalier around windows as natural security devices, as the thorns truly are horrifying deterants to break-in. But ours was located where it deterred our use of an access-path for garden care.
The main reason I put off removing it was because it was such an old shrub, tall & very pretty all year round. Replacing a big old shrub with something inevitably a lot smaller seemed a tragedy. Transplanting it was not an option, as first of all it was rooted partly in a wall of rocks, plus for all their low-maintenance hardiness, Firethorns usually drop dead if transplanted from the ground.
The other reason the location wasn't best was because it had become quite shaded by surrounding trees & shrubs, including a huge Holly, mid-sized hawthorn & Franchett's Contoneaster, a young but still quite substantial Douglas fir, & a beautiful Paperbark Maple. I'm sure when the Firethorn was first planted, the trees were small & everything got plenty of sun, but since we've had the place, the ground-level has been turned into an extensive shade-garden, in some spots too dark even for shade-plants.
Finding itself in such deep shade, the pyracantha really only flowered & berried way up top, fifteen feet in the air. It would be heavy with fruits top to bottom if it had a great deal of sunlight. The only good thing that could be said of its location was how being on a slope, it experienced no excesses of moisture. Pyracantha can stand just about anything except wet feet.
After putting off the decision for a couple of years, the final deciding factor was the back of the Paperbark Maple was leafing poorly because the Pyracantha excessively shaded that side. The Paperbark was frankly vastly more important. So with some slight sadness & trepedition, I spent a couple of days first reducing the size of the Pyracantha, assessed how the area was looking after one big shrub was much reduced in size, then cut it entirely to the ground.
It left an airy space that permitted just the right amount of sun to the rest of the garden. The overall look was frankly much improved, which was a relief to see, as I was so afraid removing such a big shrub would leave a bad hole. Sometimes with so many large things planted in close proximity, there just isn't going to be room for everything to reach its fullest mature size, & something must inevitably go.
If I ever plant a Pyracantha personally, it will be out by the road, & it will be the variety with startlingly yellow-golden berries so that the drupes will really be distinct from the many red-berrying shrubs throughout our gardens. In the meantime, the one we have is not really killed. A Pyracantha can grow back from being pruned to the ground very easily. I still have to face the decision whether to root it out entirely to discard, or train it as it regrows, in a constant battle with pruning sheers.
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