LIGHTING-UP time is here as the Battle of the Berries reaches its climax.
And as a grower of several hardy shrubs, I can say without too much reservation that only two serious contenders fight it out in the ring – cotoneaster in the red corner, pyracantha in the orange.
OK, there are, of course, many pretenders to the title Best Berried Shrub for autumn and winter – callicarpa, gaultheria, berberis, photinia, the little-known ruscus and good old holly for starters.
Yet for sheer performance and pzazz only the dynamic duo deserve Premier League status.
Call it nature’s most vibrant berried treasure trove – and 2018 is up there among the best of the awesome autumns of recent years.
Bright and beautiful to the eye, the pair are useful too, providing a perfect platform for food and shelter for wildlife in the garden, a significant source of nectar for bees and, in the case of pyracantha, a burglar barrier supreme.
That’s because pyracantha, popularly known as firethorn, is armed with needle-sharp spines that are more than vicious enough to make a potential housebreaker think again.
Both shrubs are closely related, but all cotoneasters are thornless and, as such, are the gentler sisters of the firethorn.
Yet cotoneaster, which doesn’t have a snappier title, is a superb choice if you want beauty without the bite and a diversity of shape and size.
There are other notable differences between the two. Whereas all pyracanthas are evergreen, cotoneasters can also be deciduous, though the most commonly grown species and varieties tend to keep their leaves all year around.
Unlike many of their bedfellows, this duo will approve of sun or semi-shade, good or poor soil, acid or lime and are seldom victims to troubles.
Another major contrast are the size and statures of the two genera. Pyracantha embrace about 35 species and varieties and nearly all reach heights of between 10ft and 20ft.
Cotoneaster, however, is a huge race, with as many as 400 species and around 50 varieties in the family. And what names they contain to try to tongue-tie us – qungbixiensis, kweithhoviensis, zeravschamicus and hjelmqvista are – I kid you not – four horror handles.
Fancy a couple more? Practise gonnggashanensis and nedoluzhkoi before you go mental!
Thankfully there are species like rockii and crispii to restore our sanity.
As for size, they range from dinky spreaders that top no more than 12in to mature trees of 20ft or higher.
Do bear in mind that this pair are grown not only for their autumnal allure. In April and May the small, white, shimmering flowers, often in clusters and nicely fragrant, look appealing, not least the firethorn’s which must take the honours by a twig’s breadth.
Pyracantha Orange Glow, which I have grown for at least 25 years, usually hangs on to its fruits until well into December before the hungry birds descend and I suspect the same applies to the similar Orange Charmer and the yellow-berried Flava.
Best-known of the cotoneasters are horizontalis, which weaves a herringbone stem pattern across a wall and sports red berries, and conspicuus which delivers a massive crop of similar coloured fruits which birds seem to adore.
And for David and Goliath? Try dammeri which carpets its domain to a height of no more than a few inches and salicifolius that soars to 20ft and is clothed in long, narrow, evergreen leaves, white blooms and crimson berries.
So which do you prefer? The barbed beauty or the more benign berry bearer? Go search the garden centres ad you’ll find plenty begging to be bought.
✴ To learn more about cotoneasters, read the 2009 definitive work, entitled Cotoneasters, by Jeanette Fryer and Bertil Hylmó, published by Timber Press.
⏩⏩➡» Berried treasure: Top three – Berries and blossom of pyracantha; above left – Cotoneaster horizontalis; right – the white wonder of cotoneaster’s springtime show.