November 21, 2006 > PYRACANTHA
by Pat Kite
The robins are massing, like holiday decorations on a plethora of pyracantha ripe red berries. If I am lucky, one day cedar waxwings will visit to snack. These crested beige birds with the black eye mask are so quiet that unless you just happen to spot them, you wouldn't know a dozen or more are there. But I always watch, just in case.
My pyracantha is about 30 years old and 16 feet tall. By now it forms a huge tree-like fountain of green leaves and bright red berries. In spring it has small creamy white flowers, visited by pollinators. When the berries are gone, the shiny dark green leaves remain, a shelter for visiting birds. These plants have feisty spines, making them a good fence block. The word pyracantha comes from the Greek words for "fire," [pyr] and "thorn" [akantha]; a nickname is "firethorn."
There are several different species, or types, of pyracantha. One of the shortest, called "Santa Cruz," is just 3 feet high, but gets to 6 feet wide. Pyracantha berry color can be gold, bright yellow-orange, orange, dark orange, red or scarlet. There's even a "Harlequin" variety with white and green leaves.
I always try, in this column, to find a story for you. I thought pyracantha would be easy, but despite a 200-book search, only one tale emerged. It comes from France.
A discontented tree-sprite lived in a gnarled old hawthorn. He wanted to wander, not stay where he was. Finally the tree-gods agreed to let him come and go, but only in the form of a green wolf.
In this long-ago day and age, there were only a few scattered monasteries. Messages and packages were carried from one to another by a faithful donkey. One afternoon the green wolf met this donkey and ate it, every bit.
Just then a monk came along. The monk thought the green wolf was the devil in disguise. He held up his cross. At the sight of the cross, the green wolf felt very sorry for what he had done. So he confessed and offered to take the donkey's place, which he did for many weeks.
Then one day, as he was delivering messages, he came upon a terrible forest fire. What to do? Turn back? But he had promised to faithfully serve the monks. So he tried to race through the fire. But he wasn't swift enough. The fire caught him, and when he emerged, half his fur was green and the other half flaming red.
To stop his suffering, the tree-gods quickly turned him into a firethorn with flaming red berries among pretty green leaves. They added spines as a reminder of the gnarled old hawthorn where once upon a time a little tree-sprite lived.
Planting instructions: Pyracanthas prefer sun, but some varieties will tolerate a little shade. They prefer soil somewhat on the dry side. Once started, the plants are fairly drought tolerant. Place where they are to grow. Mature pyracanthas do not tolerate being moved.
Fireblight, a plant bacterial problem, can occasionally bother these otherwise hardy plants. Once you see it, you will know it forever. The leaves blacken, almost overnight, as if burnt by fire. If it's a worry, the orange-berried variety "Mohave," growing to 12 feet tall, is quite resistant.
Remember: birds like berries of all kinds, and winter is coming round the corner. But I'm still buying plants, giving them a good rooting system before their spring growing spree.