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, I suspect that the most contentious part of today’s post will be how the name of this plant is pronounced. Do we go with ‘cotton-easter’, or is it the rather more exotic-sounding ‘cot-oh-knee-aster?’ Well according to the Oxford English Dictionary it’s the latter, preferably with the second syllable voiced as if you’ve just heard that the price of quinoa in Waitrose has doubled overnight. So that’s that cleared up. Incidentally, the name comes from cotone, the Latin for quince, and -aster meaning ‘resembling’ – I suppose that the berries, with their star-shaped ‘ends’, do look a little like tiny quinces.
There are over 50 species of cotoneaster in cultivation in the UK, but this is probably the most common. It is a great favourite in gardens – the small white flowers are bee-magnets that attract an extraordinary variety of pollinators from the second that they come into bud, and the berries are not only attractive to us, but also to birds. This is a plant that doesn’t need pruning, and is largely trouble-free for the gardener. Unfortunately it is also a frequent escapee, spread by those pesky birds who eat the berries and distribute them all over the place. In my ‘Field Guide to Invasive Plants and Animals in Britain’ it is described as being a dangerous invasive on cliffs and heathland, where it shades out less vigorous plants. In London, it crops up all over the place, and I’ve found cotoneaster seedlings in woodland, on waste ground and even in my own garden.
Cotoneaster is another member of the rose family (see tormentil last week), and is originally from western China. It was first introduced to the UK in about 1879, was recorded in the wild in 1940 and is said to be ‘still spreading’, though at present it can mostly be found in the south of England. From the little map in my Harraps Wildflower Guide, it appears that Dorset, Hampshire and Somerset are ‘hotspots’.
However, there is a native cotoneaster, known in Welsh as the Creigafal y Gogarth “rock apple of Gogarth” (Cotoneaster cambricus) , and found only on the Great Orme peninsula in north Wales. There are only six of this plant left in the wild, with another 11 cultivated from cuttings and seeds. The plant is unique to this habitat, and grows nowhere else. It has a very slow and erratic germination and survival rate (the 11 cultivated plants are the only ones left from 33 originally planted out). The plant was discovered in 1783 and since then has been dug up by collectors, overgrazed by sheep, eaten by rabbits and goats and, the final straw, outcompeted by other species of cotoneaster from local gardens. There is a plan in place to increase the population to 100 plants by 2030, so fingers crossed.But, to return to the far more common Cotoneaster horizontalis. You will sometimes find mention of the berries being poisonous, but fortunately the level of toxins is very low, and the berries are rather bitter and powdery, so the chance of anyone being masochistic enough to eat a sufficient quantity to do themselves a damage is extremely low. Indeed, on the Poison Garden website the author states that even the birds will only eat his cotoneaster berries when everything else is gone. In view of this, it will come as no surprise that I can find no recipes featuring cotoneaster berries, not even a tasty liqueur.
Having thought that we had nailed down the pronunciation of the name of this week’s plant, I have now come across a poem by Thomas Hardy which throws the proverbial spanner in the works. It’s fair to say that it’s not one of his best works, although it is in an interesting poetical form called a triolet, a French form with a rigid pattern of stress and rhyme. Here it is, in full.
Birds at Winter Nightfall
Around the house the flakes fly faster,
And all the berries now are gone
From holly and cotoneaster
Around the house. The flakes fly!–faster
Shutting indoors that crumb-outcaster
We used to see upon the lawn
Around the house. The flakes fly faster,
And all the berries now are gone!
So, even accounting for Hardy’s probable West Country accent, we now have a third possible way of saying ‘cotoneaster’ – ‘cot-oh-knee-arster’. Unless Hardy pronounces ‘faster’ as ‘fass-ter’ rather than ‘farster’, which is quite possible. I like the idea of a ‘crumb-outcaster’ – that would be me, in all weathers.
However, my happiest find for this particular Wednesday Weed is some music by the composer David Warin Solomons called ‘Cotoneaster’. Inspired by the bees coming and going from his cotoneaster bush, it’s a rather meditative and peaceful piece, redolent of those first warm days of spring when the flowers open, and the queen bees are stocking up their reserves for the challenges ahead. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!
Cotoneaster for cor anglais and and guitar, by David Warin Solomons
Photo One (Native Cotoneaster) – By Col Ford and Natasha de Vere from living in Wales (Cotoneaster cambricus Uploaded by Tim1357) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
All other photos copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you!