Very Berry Christmas
Decorate your garden for Christmas using shrubs that carry berries. Pyracantha and Cotoneaster are not only bright and beautiful; they are useful too, providing an excellent source of food and shelter for the wildlife in your garden and a significant source of nectar when the bees have slim pickings in the June gap. The magnificent fiery orange and ruby red berries are set on a backdrop of dark, evergreen, glossy foliage that can brighten up the gloomiest December day or sparkle in the winter sunshine!
The plants at first glance look similar and in fact are distantly related. Pyracantha is commonly known as Firethorn, and if you’ve ever been pricked by one of its thorns you’d know why! They are viciously prickly, but for some, it adds to the plant’s versatility. Due to its thorny nature it is recommended as an intruder deterrent for those unwanted animal (or human!) visitors to your garden. Plant them close together and within a couple of years they will be almost completely impenetrable.
Cotoneaster is the gentler sister of Pyracantha – it is thornless and therefore sometimes chosen over Pyracantha by those who want the beauty without the bite!
Both plants can be grown as hedges, groundcover or against walls and fences; they look equally good as free-standing shrubs. They are easy to grow in sun or partial shade and in any reasonable soil. They have the added benefit of being covered by beautiful white flowers in the month of May, the only slight downside is that some varieties have what is sometimes described as a pungent smell, make sure you make the most of those knowledgeable experts at your local garden centre and get advice on the right plant for you and your garden.
Pyracantha ‘Navajo’ and Pyracantha ‘Orange Charmer’ are excellent examples. ‘Orange Charmer’ is an evergreen, bushy, arching shrub with white flowers from April and large spherical orange fruits in autumn. ‘Navajo’ sports vibrant orange red berries nestled against shiny green leaves and can be resistant to fireblight. The Royal Horticultural Society has given our next choice its Award of Garden Merit (AGM); Cotoneaster horizontalis has superb colour late in the year with deep red berries and glossy green foliage. The herringbone patterned stems develop into a decorative weave across the ground or on a wall, according to how it is trained. It works well in the shade but the delicate pink flowers and jewel like red berries really thrive in full sun.
Hollies of course have the added benefit of providing decoration for inside too! There are a number of different species with the Award of Garden Merit which you could use to grace your garden with all year round colour. Ilex aquifolium ‘Argentea marginata’ is the silver-margined holly which grows to be a medium sized tree or can be pruned to keep it smaller & has bright red berries in winter. Or if you prefer rich golden edged foliage why not grow Ilex altaclerensis ‘Golden King’ which is a lot less spiny but also berries in winter.
For something a little more unusual, why not grow Callicarpa bodinieri var. giraldii 'Profusion'? This is a medium-sized deciduous shrub whose leaves turn rosy pink in autumn as it produces violet-purple berries in compact clusters. It would fit well into a shrub or mixed border & fruits best when planted in groups & subjected to a long hot summer.
When you are tidying the garden to make space for a new shrub at this time of year one of the most important things is to leave some suitable habitat for our precious garden wildlife. Try not to disturb piles of grass or hedge clippings as these may be harbouring grass snakes or even rare slow worms. Leaves and logs are the favourite haunts of over-wintering hedgehogs as well as long grass under hedges so don’t be too tidy!