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Beauty and the Birds...

It’s true isn’t it, that when you see something regularly, when it’s all around us and we don’t need to look for it, then we start to not see it.

I often think that when I look at some of our most common garden plants such as the hardy Fuchsias and Foxgloves that if they were hard to grow here or difficult to source then we gardeners would go to so much trouble to create the right growing conditions for them, scouring plant fairs and online for quality specimens such is their beauty. We humans are strange creatures, searching for the rarer varieties of Digitalis (Foxglove) just because they are rare when really none can compare with the truly regal beauty of the common purple form Digitalis purpurea.

One such plant which I have known since childhood but really have only come to value in later life is the Pyracantha or Firethorn. Traditionally grown in this part of the world as a wall shrub and indeed it can make a great wall covering but there is no need for the support or shelter of a wall to grow Pyracantha as it will grow equally as well as a free standing specimen.

Fragrant white showy flowers are produced freely during May and June and the dark green glossy foliage offers these flowers the perfect backround contrasting so well with the pure white. These blooms develop into berries during the autumn and winter months which makes it nearly more attractive during these months.

As gardens get smaller and choice of available plants larger, it becomes more and more difficult to decide which plant makes the grade and finds its way into your garden. Plants like Pyracntha offer at least two seasons of interest which makes it a valuable addition to any garden. It’s not just a few weeks of white flowers and then a dull and uninteresting evergreen for the other forty odd weeks.

No, it’s ever changing and as a thing of beauty it’s always a welcome plant in the garden.

But it plays more than just an aesthetic role in the garden. This is a plant that the police and insurance companies will advise you to plant. If I was to say that it’s thorny I should use a capital ’T’ and I think that it is as a hedge that this plant shows itself off at its best.

A Pyracantha hedge makes a serious thorny fence, more effective than any barbed wire, good obviously form a security point of view, deterring bad guys but also from a safety perspective. A child might touch this plant once but after a prick from one of its long spiny thorns they won’t be in any rush back. For this reason it’s a good plant to use near a safety hazard such as a drop in height or similar in the garden.

Pyracantha is probably most important for the role it plays in local biodiversity. Its flowers are loved by the bees during the months of early and mid-summer when they are busy collecting nectar for honey. The berries later provide an invaluable food source for several species of birds and you’ll be amazed at how brave the little blackbirds become during the winter when looking to gorge on the berries. I’ve often been lucky enough to be within 2 or 3 metres of a handsome blackbird perched on a branch and rolling a berry in his beak. They really are beautiful birds and the berries must be irresistible to their taste buds for them to pluck up the courage to come so close to us humans.

We have to be a bit more careful if we want to eat them. Technically they are mildly poisonous if eaten straight from the bush as they contain a similar glycoside to that found in the seeds of apples, cherries and roses. A lot would need to be eaten to cause even an upset stomach but to make them safe to eat they should be crushed and rinsed under running water, cooked and made into Pyracantha Jelly, a delicacy I have yet to try.

One of about 12 or 13 genera that are susceptible to Fireblight (Erwinia amylovora) attention should be paid if you ever see dieback, curling of the leaves, premature wilting or dying off of the flowers as these could be symptoms of Fireblight. This is a fungal infection which would be potentially very harmful to our local environment f it got establilshed.

Every year a few cases are confirmed in Ireland but these are always dealt with quickly. IIf you are in doubt then contact your local garden centre or the Horticulture and Plant Health Division of the Dept of Agriculture.

A thorny, evergreen, summer flowering, winter berrying, bird nesting, nectar giving, wildlife feeding plant. That was one long sentence for one hugely important plant, maybe next time you see it you might stop and take notice and admire once more the beauty that is all around.

Red and orange pyracantha berries
These Pyracantha berries will not only provide winter beauty in your garden, they will also provide welcome food for blackbirds.

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