A Living Fence of Pyracantha

I’m looking for some kind of bush or shrub or vine that will help to create a security barrier over a 3 foot high chain link fence, that will grow to around 5 or 6 feet or so, will look decent maybe with some nice blooms and if I’m lucky I can get away with no or modest pruning. Would be great if the bush was bird friendly, perhaps with berries – that would fit well with the birdbath in the backyard and my spreading bird seed a few times a week.

firethorn (Pyracantha coccinea)

firethorn (Pyracantha coccinea)

I have considered firethorn (pyracantha), but not sure which variety would work. I know it is available as a vine but don’t know how thick the foliage would be or how high it would grow and whether I could get away with not having to prune it.  Certain varieties can grow quite tall and wide and the thought of having to prune them with all the thorns is something that sounds a little foreboding. Would they need pruning?
— Richie Locasso, Hemet

Pyracantha (pyr = fire, acantha = thorn), referencing the fiery color of its berries and its thorny disposition, is not planted that much anymore.  It earned a reputation as a relatively short-lived species on account of its susceptibility to fire blight, a disease caused by certain bacteria that enter through flowers and scorch whole branches before the plant eventually dies.  This disease is also frequently seen on ornamental pear trees, Photinia shrubs, toyon, and occasionally on apple trees, too.

But now plant breeders have been successful in developing hybrid pyracantha cultivars that are immune to fire blight.  At least four of these are available through Monrovia Nursery:  ‘Victory’ and ‘Mohave’ grow ten feet tall so they would have to be pruned if you want them to grow to your desired height;  ‘Red Elf’ may be grown as a billowy ground cover or low hedge since it reaches only two feet in height; ‘Rodgers’ grows to a height of three feet so that, by tying long shoots to a frame or lattice of some kind, you could easily stretch them to the 5-6 foot height you have in mind.

You say pyracantha is available as a vine but I think what you mean is that it is trained on a trellis so that it resembles a vine.  You could certainly purchase such trellised plants or train plants grown as bushes in trellised/espaliered fashion.  In this case, though, you would have to regularly prune your pyracanthas in order for them to grow tight against your fence or lattice.

If I were in your shoes, I might consider planting one of the taller growing pyracantha cultivars and just letting it grow and abstain from pruning altogether.  Pyracantha is highly drought tolerant, stays lush without fertilization and, after a year or two in the ground, would probably make due, water wise, with an occasional summer soaking, if even that.

No plant is more covered with white flowers in the spring or inundated with red berries in the fall than pyracantha, and its thorns will deter the most determined intruders from crossing your property line.

Since we are already talking about a thorny living fence, I would be remiss not to mention hardy orange (Poncirus trifoliata), whose mature height ranges from six to fifteen feet.   In the spring, its fragrant flowers attract bees and butterflies.  Its thorns, up to two inches long, invite birds to make their nests since they know predatory birds and other animals will not dare to approach where their meddling could result in being pierced.  It produces small oranges in the fall from which you can make marmalade and its winter profile, after leaves that turned autumn colors have fallen, is an arresting configuration of deep green stems.

If you were to forego your thorn and berry requirements, there are a large number of California natives that make wonderful hedges, and some of them are fruit/berry bearing, such as sugar bush (Rhus ovata) and lemonade berry (Rhus integrifolia), too.   You can find an extensive list of California native hedges at laspilitas.com.  In the search box at the top of the home page, type in “hedges.”  Many manzanita cultivars grow to a height of five or six feet.

Tip of the Week:  Due to the above average rainfall we experienced this year, there is a heavier than usual bloom – some are calling it a “superbloom” — of wildflowers this spring. To learn where to go to get a good view of them – and they are at their peak between late March and mid-April – call the Theodore Payne wildflower hotline at 818 768-1802, ext. 7.  The 16th annual Theodore Payne native plant tour of home gardens around Los Angeles will be held on April 5th and 6th.  For ticket information, go to theodorepayne.org.

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