Name: The name firethorn is very appropriate because these bushes are thorny and covered in autumn and early winter with fire-coloured red, orange and yellow berries.

Botanical name: The botanical name of firethorn, which is pyracantha, means exactly the same thing.

Pyrus means fire and acanthus means thorn. It is a member of the rose family, the Rosaceae, along with apples, pears, hawthorn and rose itself among many thousands of species.

The familial resemblance is clear when the individual small flowers are closely observed, having five petals in a rose, rounded shape. It is also evident in the shape of the fruits, berries, in this case.

A fall in popularity

Although firethorn is one of the best berrying shrubs for garden use and was widely planted for its fine show of white blossom in spring and its brilliant show of berries, it has become much less popular in the last dozen years or so. The reason for its decline was the widespread damage caused by two diseases. The most common of these two diseases is known as pyracantha scab. As is inferred, this fungal disease attacks the flowers, leaves and brightly coloured berries, blackening them and causing them to shrivel.

While this disease is debilitating on the plant and spoils its appearance, it does not cause death of the plant in the way that the other disease, namely fire blight, can. As a result of its susceptibility, the use of pyracantha for autumn display has reduced dramatically. But disease resistant strains have been developed and they have replaced older varieties with considerable success.

Native to southern Europe across to China, the various species of pyracantha are found growing wild in rocky scrubby places and woodland edge. It is related to hawthorn, looking quite similar, and like hawthorn, it likes dry, well-drained soil. Many of the disease problems of pyracantha were exacerbated by growing in rich fertile soil in gardens, making the plant grow vigorously and soft, and more prone to fungal infections. Like its relatives, roses, apples and pears, pyracantha suffers from a form of scab fungus disease. Plants grown in dry, evenly gravelly, soil make tougher stems with more berries and less leafy growth. If you grow resistant forms of pyracantha, it is possible to avoid unnecessary spraying with fungicides.


New varieties have been introduced with better natural resistance to diseases and these are mostly the ones supplied in the garden centres. Varieties that show good resistance include ‘Red Column’, ‘Saphyr Red’, ‘Saphyr Yellow’, ‘Orange Charmer’, ‘Golden Charmer’and ‘Orange Glow’. The names of the new varieties given indication of their colour berries. Pyracantha is still occasionally recommended for shady places, but it is much better grown in full sunshine. Any shade puts pressure on the plant and makes it more disease-prone, besides the fact that shaded plants take longer to dry after rain and this favours the fungus that causes scab disease. Now is a good time of year to buy pyracantha because it is possible to choose your favourite colour and to watch out and avoid buying plants already carrying the symptoms of fungal damage.

Although firethorn can be trained against a wall, it looks much more natural when allowed to make a big bush or small tree. It can be somewhat gangly in growth habit so shorten the longer stems. This also reveals the berries to sunshine. The length of time the berries last in winter depends on how soon the feeding blackbirds and thrushes descend upon it. Usually, they begin to feed after hard frost has softened and sweetened the berries. If there are enough birds feeding, they can strip the bush in a few days.

Lawn maintenance

Falling leaves

Leaves in the garden.

It will be a few weeks yet before all of the deciduous trees have lost their leaves, but, it is important to clear them off lawns, low perennials and paths, paved areas and driveways. A layer of tree leaves can kill a lawn by shading it out, and by the action of chemicals contained in the leaves. Low perennial flowers, such as diascia, pulmonaria and ajuga, can suffer from the covering of leaves if it is too thick and these should be picked off the plants with a rake. Not every leaf need be removed, just enough to break the blanket of leaves that forms.

On paths and paths areas, leaves can be very slippery and dangerous when wet. Fallen leaves are fine when dry but, when wetted for a period of time, they begin to break down and release gums and gels that can be treacherous underfoot. Leaves also stain paving as they rot and should be swept off. Apart from these areas, fallen leaves can be left to break down naturally.

This week’s reminders

Trees, shrubs and roses

All kinds of deciduous trees, shrubs and roses can be planted. Bare-root trees are cheaper than pot-grown plants. Control grass and weeds around young trees and shrubs. Evergreens can still be planted but it would be best to wait until spring in an exposed site where winter winds might damage the foliage.


Most lawns are in good condition with late growth. Carry out mowing if possible although many lawns are soft for mowing. If lawn moss growth is heavy, as it is in many lawns, apply sulphate of iron with a small distributor. Repairs to a damaged lawn can be carried out and humps and hollows fixed.


Containers and flower beds can still be planted up with spring bedding, such as wall flowers and tulips. Most perennial flowers can be lifted and divided or new specimens planted. Tender flowers, tubers or bulbs may need to be covered or lifted and taken under cover.

Fruit, vegetables and herbs

Plant all sorts of fruit trees and bushes in a good site and soil for best results. The vegetable area can be tidied up, and perhaps dug over, but weeds should certainly be controlled. Tidy over herbs, removing withered stems. Winter vegetables, such as leeks, Swede turnips, parsnips and Jerusalem artichokes can be tidied.

Greenhouse and house plants

Pots and trays can be washed. The glass should be cleaned to improve light levels. Check for pests such as greenflies that can cause a lot of damage now. Water lightly, if at all. Water house plants sparingly. Too much dampness can cause rotting of greenhouse plants and encourage damage by snails.