ALTHOUGH still one of the very best berrying shrubs for autumn and winter, pyracantha, or fire thorn, is not as popular as it once was.
Twenty years ago, it was a standard item in gardens, grown for flowers, berries and its sheer bulk. Though less often seen, it is quite a sight in some gardens these days.
A number of misfortunes fell upon pyracantha. As modern gardens got smaller and space was at a premium, pyracantha happened to be a bit too exuberant for many, and it was dropped off the list. And it ran into significant disease and pest troubles.
The major disease is pyracantha scab disease which affects the leaves by blackening them, and causes scabs on the berries, making them crack and spoiling their colour. If affected early in summer, the berries sometimes do not form at all and simply shrivel and fall off. Overall, the result of continuous scab attack is to leave the bush half-bare and blackened.
The most damaging pest of pyracantha is woolly aphid, a form of greenfly that shelters under tufts of white cotton-like fibre and draws sap from the branches year-round. This feeding severely weakens the plant, stunting it, sometimes causing die-back and usually stemming all flowering and berrying.
While these problems have destroyed thousands of plants, they are not insurmountable. There are new varieties that exhibit good resistance to pyracantha scab. These are smaller in stature, and not as vigorous as the older types and, if anything, they are even better for berries.
The woolly aphid problem is easily solved by applying a garden insecticide when the woolly tufts are noticed, or in early summer.
If roses are grown in the garden and sprayed against rose blackspot disease, the same spray will solve pyracantha's pest and disease problems.
But if you do not want the bother of spraying, it is still possible to succeed with pyracantha -- and it is worth the effort -- by choosing the planting spot carefully and by selecting the newer varieties, which include 'Orange Charmer', 'Orange Glow', 'Saphyr Orange', 'Saphyr Red', 'Mohave', which is red, 'Red Column', and 'Soleil d'Or', which is golden yellow (pictured).
Pick a spot with well-drained, even gravelly, soil and good air movement. The shrub flowers and berries much better in relatively poor hungry soil.
If the foliage dries out reasonably quickly after rain, there is a lower incidence of scab disease.
Pyracantha can be trained to wires on a wall or allowed to take its naturally informal shape. Prune out surplus young shoots in July.