Berried Treasure – Cotoneasters for Winter Gardens

Article written by Robin Lane Fox and appeared in the FT Weekend, House and Home section

In wind and heavy rain the recent splendour of asters, dahlias and late-flowering salvias has been reduced to sodden brown pulp and blackened stems. Beauty has to be found elsewhere and I am finding it where many other gardeners see only beasts. Five years ago I celebrated an excellent book by two great experts, Jeanette Fryer and Berbil Hydmo, an Anglo-Swedish pair who are devoted to the charm, variety and vivid colours of cotoneasters. Admiring their monograph, Cotoneasters: A Comprehensive Guide to Shrubs for Flowers, Fruit, and Foliage (2009), I planted a few more varieties on the strength of their recommendations and urged you to take a closer look at the family’s lesser known members. On garden panels and question-and-answer days I see little evidence that the call has been heeded. I have only to suggest a cotoneaster and interest and enthusiasm evaporate. That closer look has yet to come.

In fact, cotoneasters are high-class orientals. Many of the best live in the promised land of fine shrubs and trees. They proliferate in the uplands of north Myanmar, west China and Tibet, home to so much that gardeners revere. When they were first brought to Britain by the dozen in the 19th century they were valued beside rhododendrons and camellias. Cotoneaster microphyllus came from Nepal, and an early admirer wished that a “poet would compare its little white flowers to diamonds lying on a bed of emeralds”. I bet you have never looked on a flowering cotoneaster and thought of jewels. Microphyllus is not appreciated fully nowadays.

One overused variety has done the family no favours. The fan-shaped branches of stiff cotoneaster horizontalis turn up too often against brick-built houses with which their autumn colours and red berries clash strongly. They are plants for desperate corners with a correspondingly desperate look. Actually there is an excellent cream-variegated variation on the basic green-leaved parent which is pretty and less overpowering. It is a superb plant for covering a dryish bank and ought to be used more often because the cream marking on its leaves brings light to a dank slope of neglected ground. Strict botanists are trying to confuse us by renaming it Cotoneaster atropurpureus Variegatus.

Try looking at other varieties with camellias and Chinese hillsides in mind. The leaves then take on a new quality and stop suggesting suburbia by association. The fine Rothschild gardens at Exbury in Hampshire are forever associated with vivid azaleas, but as if to make the point, two of their best introductions have been cotoneasters, bred and launched before the family’s stock fell. One is the vigorous free-fruiting Cornubia, covered in scarlet berries every year among dark shiny green leaves that are shaped like a willow’s. I have tried to grow it against a wall but made a bad mistake as Cornubia is far too vigorous. It deserves open ground and will fruit very well, even in light shade under tall trees. At Exbury the oldest plants reached 25ft in height before slowing down. The pair for red-berried Cornubia is either the yellow-berried Exburiensis, another superb free-fruiting shrub, or yellow-berried Rothschildianus, which is even bigger. It is a shame to have a garden without either or both, not least because they are a superb sight this weekend as winter’s gloom begins to gather. Their branches are also excellent for picking and displaying indoors, a finale from the garden before hothouse orchids, poinsettias and azaleas take over at Christmas.

Cotoneaster lacteus is the one I use most. Its leaves are lightened by grey and nobody could justly call it sombre. The red berries are brilliant and will last well beyond Christmas, but it also makes a trim, smart hedge. Plant young bushes about 2ft apart and stake their central stems on tall bamboo canes. As they grow up, tie them to the canes until they reach 5ft to 8ft. Meanwhile, cut off all shoots that try to sprout forwards and make a loose bush. Give the entire hedge a good clip into shape in August and you will end up with a tight, neat hedge at a height of your choosing, not fully evergreen but covered in December with vivid red berries as a compensation. Cotoneaster lacteus was brought in from China just over a hundred years ago but it has never been as popular as it deserves. It can be clipped to make a good hedge on one side of a low wall that defines an urban front garden — vastly preferable to dull old privet.

In Britain one of the best selections of cotoneasters is offered by Larch Cottage Nurseries, near Penrith, which also sends plants by mail. It even lists the latest discovery, Cotoneaster ogisui, found only recently by an expert collector in Sichuan. It has very big red fruits and is set to be another winner. I want it, but I want another even more, because Cotoneaster St Monica commemorates a lady much in my mind. St Monica was the celebrated mother of Augustine on whom I have just published a long-considered book. Nothing about her suggested to me bright red berries, far bigger than the tears of entreaty that she shed daily before God, hoping to see her errant son baptised as a Christian whose sins would therefore be forgiven. Augustine then exceeded even her expectations and I am looking forward to her doing the same for me, developing height and width until her big-leaved branches weep with fruits to the ground. St Monica’s cotoneaster is an excellent shrub, owing nothing to California. It was found years ago in a convent named after her near Bristol.

Even without Monica, gardeners are spoilt for choice. More than 250 varieties are listed by nurseries in the RHS Plant Finder, many more than I have ever seen. Jeanette Fryer came to know them in part through the wide range grown in the Hillier gardens in Hampshire. Its great founder, Sir Harold Hillier, described their family as an “important genus” that “includes among its members some of the most important shrubs”. We have done our best to forget his judgment here, but these shrubs will grow almost anywhere without difficulty. Although they are classed as at risk to “fireblight”, I have never seen that disease kill a well-loved specimen. Short-sighted gardeners are the family’s worst enemy, neglecting scores of good varieties just because a few far from grand horizontals have been used in dreary places.

Attracting wildlife to the garden

Cotoneasters are an excellent choice for attracting wildlife to the garden, they are much loved by bee keepers- their single, simple flowers are especially attractive to bees and produce a delicate tasting honey whilst most berries can be enjoyed by birds when ripe. Their flowers usually appear from april to august depending upon species, followed by their berries which can be in a range of colours from white, cream, pink, yellow, orange, red, purple to black- the red varieties are most attractive to birds.