If anyone has experience with this shrub they know how aggressive the sharp thorns can be. Pyracantha (Pyracantha coccinea), otherwise known as firethorn, is a climbing woody shrub that produces bright reddish orange berry-like fruits. They persist late into the fall until the birds devour them.
Many songbirds, especially blue jays gorge on them. Robins, primarily worm eaters, also hit them hard. Fruits become a favorite for wild turkeys if you live on the outer edges of our communities.
This apple relative has semi-evergreen leaves, meaning in the northern parts of its range plants lose their leaves. Around here it is pretty much green all year and in the mountains of North Carolina plants often lose a portion of their foliage.
Pyracantha can be grown as a specimen shrub, a hedge or a climbing vine. It is one that is often trained to grow up a wall, particularly a south facing one. Training to a particular shape such as flat against a wall often requires meticulous pruning.
Pruning this plant can be hazardous to one’s body. The woody thorns can be inconspicuous but penetrate deeply if you grasp too tight. Sometimes trimming is necessary, but if you cut plants back in the fall or when dormant you will eliminate much of the white fragrant bloom and therefore the beautiful fruits.
Try waiting until plants bloom in spring and adjust shape from that point. This shrub is tough. You can cut it to the ground if you want to, but you will sacrifice flowers and fruit for a while. It is also adaptable and will grow almost anywhere. It won’t flower much in the shade and growth will be spindly, so don’t plant it there.
In areas where plants have spread into the wild, they usually don’t become well established under shady canopies. While not overly invasive, these shrubs are quite conspicuous in fall. Often there’s plenty of fruit, which is not poisonous to humans. Many think otherwise, so they aren’t used much.
Pyracantha can be loaded with fruit when grown in sunny locations. We call the fruit berries, but they are really more similar to miniature apples. Correctly, they are termed pomes, as they have a core which contains the seeds.
These pomes are rather sour but won’t hurt you. In fact, they make great jelly if harvested when they are fully ripe and begin to soften. One problem with this is birds become well aware when their palatability increases as well. Once you notice birds helping themselves you must act quickly if you want fruit for jelly.
My preference is to strain the seeds from the juice when making jelly. Firethorn seeds contain cyanide compounds, which in large quantities could pose problems if crushed finely. Swallowing seeds whole presents fewer risks and removing them eliminates the variable.
Jelly flavor is similar to apple or pear. Some people like to put hot pepper in jelly and this might present a clever marketing tool for some entrepreneur. Adding hot pepper juice might create a true “firethorn jelly.”
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.