By January, nearly everything in the garden has died back to the ground and all but the hardiest evergreen trees and shrubs have lost their leaves. If you’re desperate for a little color in your landscape during the darkest months of winter, firethorn could be the shrub you’ve been waiting for.
Firethorn is a member of the rose family that, as its name suggests, has very sharp thorns. For this reason, it is often planted as a hedge along property lines rather than near doorways and gates, where guests could cut themselves. Still, throughout fall and winter firethorn is covered with bright, beautiful berries similar to rose hips in shades of gold, orange or red that add interest to your landscape and feed a host of neighborhood birds when food is scarce.
Growing Zones: 6-9
Bloom Time: Small, white flowers in early summer give way to bright gold, orange or red fruits in autumn and winter
Exposure: Full sun
Mature Size: 6 to 18 feet tall and wide, depending on variety
Notes: Firethorn is a semi-evergreen shrub in Zone 6. Its leaves may turn bronze and drop in the cold, but fruits will last throughout winter or until consumed by local wildlife. Thorns are very sharp and painful, so avoid planting where people or pets are likely to be cut. Like rose hips, the fruits are edible.
Growing Firethorn in the Landscape
Firethorn flowers best — and therefore bears more fruit — in full sun, but it will tolerate some shade. It prefers well drained soil of average to poor fertility and may need to be pruned to maintain its shape. Firethorn does well when supported by a fence or wall but can also be planted as a specimen. Plant in early fall or after spring frosts for best results.
Once you’ve selected a sunny spot where people are unlikely to touch your firethorn bush, dig a hole for the plant that’s twice as large as its root ball. Though firethorn doesn’t need much fertilizer, you can sprinkle bone meal into the hole to encourage strong root development. If you have heavy clay soil, amend with compost to improve drainage. Place plant in the hole and backfill with soil, making sure to keep the planting depth the same as it was in the container. Water deeply and mulch with an inch or two of shredded bark to retain moisture. It’s important not to allow your plant to dry out for the first month as it gets established, so check soil daily.
Ongoing Care for Firethorn
Once firethorn has been established, it can tolerate dry spells and needs very little care. There’s no need to fertilize or over water, as too much nitrogen and moisture can speed leaf growth and leave the plant susceptible to fire blight, a fungal disease. Firethorn is also somewhat susceptible to damage from aphids and other insects, which can be controlled by spraying with insecticidal soap.
To prune firethorn, wear protective clothing and sturdy gloves. Using long-handled pruners will help you avoid the thorns as you cut. It’s best to prune branches immediately after flowering so the plant has time to produce new buds for next year. If you prune before flowering, you won’t hurt the plant, but you’ll risk losing the next year’s berries as they grow on old wood. With careful shaping, you can enjoy firethorn’s vivid display of color even on the grayest winter days.