Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..
Dear Readers, this week we have something of a mystery on our hands. Growing at the edge of Coldfall Wood is what appears to be a Firethorn (Pyracantha) bush. This native plant of southern Europe through to south-east Asia is a common garden plant, but the clue to its normal form is in the name. Firethorn normally has the most impressive array of thorns of any common shrub, but this individual appears to be thornless. What is going on?
I used to live in Chadwell Heath, which is in the hinterland between Essex and Greater London. I had two Pyracantha bushes, one with yellow berries, and one with orange ones, much like the one in the picture below.
As you might expect, my garden was wild and overgrown by suburban standards, but it was a home to sparrows and bumblebees, toads and foxes. The sparrows in particular would chirp from the depths of the Firethorn, safe from predators, for none would dare the Firethorn’s spiky tracery. When I sold the house, there was a mix up with the moving vans, and we were marooned after the transaction was completed. The new owners took possession, but we had nowhere to go while we waited for transport to move all our stuff. We had to watch as the new owners of the house started to hack the garden about. For reasons which puzzle me even now, the new man of the house took his shirt off before he started in on my beloved Firethorn. As anyone who has ever encountered one knows, pyracantha fights back with a vengeance. Within half an hour, the plant was half its previous size, but its attacker had so many cuts on his torso that he looked as if he’d been whipped. The Firethorn might have been going down, but it left its opponent bloodied and resentful.
Pyracantha has many advantages as a wildlife garden plant, and has been cultivated in the UK since the Fifteenth century. We have already mentioned its thorns, so useful as a deterrent to would-be burglars. Its flowers attract bees, and its berries attract birds. In fact, the fruits can be such a draw that the municipal planting of Pyracantha and its close relative, Cotoneaster in supermarket car parks sometimes summons that most colourful and iconic of winter birds, the Waxwing.
Of course, none of this explains exactly why this thornless, berryless, flowerless specimen has popped up in the wood.
We have seen numerous examples of plants who have escaped from gardens and established themselves (no doubt with great glee) in the ‘wild’. And as Coldfall Wood backs onto many gardens, it would be a simple thing for a passing blackbird to gobble down a berry, perch in a hornbeam tree and deposit the seed amongst the fallen leaves. But living in the deep shade of the uncoppiced part of the wood is not ideal for a plant that needs at least some direct sunlight. I have a hypothesis that, because thorns are expensive for a plant to produce, maybe this individual is putting all its energy into producing leaves at the moment. Maybe it is too young and innocent to have thorns. Or maybe, in my infinite wisdom, I have misidentified it and it is, in fact, some errant Cotoneaster (though my botanist friends agree that it is a Pyracantha).
Not everybody is fond of Pyracantha. Like Hawthorn, its flowers are said to smell a little like sex, and so it has come to have something of a wicked reputation. Indeed, it is said that some churches will not have Firethorn berries included as part of the Harvest Festival flower arrangements because it is associated with the Devil. Terrible woman that I am, this makes me admire it even more. Who could not love this fierce, beautiful, generous plant? It is as much a force of nature as a tiger or a kestrel. And in the uncertain, tumultuous days ahead, maybe this is exactly what our struggling pollinators and birds will need.