GV Gardeners: Colorful pyracantha in the desert landscape

Brightly colored and dense Pyracantha berries decorate fences or house walls just in time for seasonal holiday decorating.

Firethorn (Pyracantha spec) is a colorful, thorny, evergreen plant native to a vast part of the world from Europe through Southeast Asia. It is also a versatile plant that grows well in the desert and is tenacious enough to be considered invasive in parts of the United States and Australia.

Pyracanthas are valued as ornamentals grown for their decorative flowers and bright fruit. Small deep green glossy leaves are fuzzy and gray underneath. Clusters of creamy white flowers develop in spring. Resulting berries begin to show color in late summer and gain full brilliance by autumn, often remaining until late winter.

These plants spread, quickly growing to 15 feet high and 6 feet wide. Sharp thorns add a nearly impenetrable barrier for either wildlife or persons. Many homeowners plant Pyracantha for home security as an option to building walls and fences.

When shopping for a variety, there are a couple of general suggestions. Select from only disease-resistant stock. Pyracantha is susceptible to fireblight, a deadly bacterial disease causing blackened branches and decreased berry production. The only treatment is to cut off the affected branch well below the diseased area. To discourage further spread, disinfect pruning tools between cuts.

When berry color is important, choose from blazing orange, red, or yellow berries, any of which may remain on the plants until early spring. Among the many hybrids available are: “Victory,” a newer variety with intense red berry clusters; “Yukon Bell” with bright orange fruit; and “Mohave,” a heat-loving hybrid perfect for the desert, with red-orange berries.

Although happy in desert heat, Pyracanthas tolerate winter temperatures down to 10 degrees Fahrenheit. The P. coccinea cultivar is hardy to 0 degrees F.

Planting of Pyracantha in autumn or very early spring is recommended. They will accept most soils if well-drained. Set new plants 4 to 5 feet apart in full sun to partial shade. If they receive too much shade, fewer berries will be produced. Water every 7 to 10 days for the first year; after established, every 2 to 3 weeks in summer and every 1 to 2 months in winter.

To control growth, prune in late winter or early spring to remove damaged limbs or to reduce size. Pinching tips during growing season will help to maintain shape and control dimensions. Keep in mind that these are the branches that will bear flowers the following spring, so leave enough for bloom and fruit. If a plant is very overgrown, it may be better to prune back hard and skip a berry season in order to have a more manageable plant in future years.

During trimming, it can be quite tricky dodging the long, sharp thorns as you reach around branches to cut. Leather gloves and long sleeves are a must when pruning Pyracantha!

Mary Kidnocker is a University of Arizona Master Gardener who lives in the Green Valley area. Her articles are featured weekly.

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