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Hungry birds quick to feast on the colourful cotoneaster

Last year was a very good year for berries on all sorts of berry-bearing shrubs, and cotoneaster was outstanding. Hungry birds feed avidly on cotoneaster and often strip the shrubs of berries before the end of the year, especially after frost has softened the berries. There are still berries on some plants although these too will soon be eaten.

The berries of cotoneaster develop from small flowers in late spring and the green berries begin to colour up in late summer. In autumn, the berries of cotoneaster become more noticeable as their red colour brightens. But they are hardly touched until the frosty nights arrive and the berries sweeten.

There are many kinds of cotoneaster, some evergreen, others deciduous. Some are low-growing shrubs and some are fair-sized trees. The most widely grown species is Cotoneaster horizontalis, the herringbone cotoneaster, often planted against a wall or fence, against which it fans out. It is very attractive to bees for pollen and nectar. Covered in autumn with bright, wax-red berries, the leaves are shed to reveal them and, by now, most of them have fed hungry birds.

There are several other good low-growing cotoneasters, not as well-known as the herring-bone cotoneaster. Cotoneaster adpressus is deciduous and grows to 30cm or so. Cotoneaster dammeri is evergreen with deep red berries and reaches to only 20cm. These are ideal falling over a low retaining wall or an earthen bank.

The very popular Cotoneaster 'Hybridus Pendulus' would also trail on the soil surface if it were left to itself but it is usually offered for sale trained on a stem as a small weeping tree. A well-grown specimen can be very pretty - a weeping cascade of bright red berries right down to ground level.

Shrubby kinds of cotoneaster can be used as single shrubs in a border and also as hedging. Cotoneaster simonsii is semi-evergreen, good for berries, and makes quite a big bush. The milky cotoneaster, Cotoneaster lacteus, is sometimes used as a grey-green evergreen hedge, not much berrying, but with plenty of growth and perhaps too much clipping.

Some kinds of cotoneaster are small trees. The semi-evergreen variety 'Cornubia' makes a superb small tree or large bush, covered in berries on semi-weeping branches. The biggest tree-sized kind is Cotoneaster frigidus, a deciduous species from China, capable of reaching about five metres tall and eight metres across.

Cotoneasters need no special soil and will grow well in any ordinary ground as long as it is not waterlogged or very wet in winter. If anything, being naturally trees and shrubs of rocky areas, they like well-drained soil, a little on the dry side. Plant any of these when conditions improve.

Sunday Independent