Recently while walking near the North Umpqua River (Oregon) Leonard and I saw in the distance a shrub covered in bright orange berries. We both immediately said, mountain ash (Sorbus scopulina) because of the bright berries. Drawing closer we realized the plant was not a mountain ash or rowan, but instead was a pyracantha (Pyracantha coccinea) or firethorn. The orange berries had us fooled.
Pyracantha is a member of the rose family native to southeastern Europe, the Himalayas, and central China. It is mainly grown as an ornamental. With its evergreen foliage (semi-evergreen in colder climates) and orange berries, pyracantha is valued for its color. Birds and other wildlife find cover in the dense branches and eat the berries, which remain on the plants into the winter. This lone pyracantha was most likely “planted” by a bird from seeds ingested in someone’s garden.
Pyracantha leaves are alternate, glossy green, elliptic and have serrated margins. Needlelike thorns cover the plant. In the spring small white flowers cover the shrub. Malodorous, but not strongly so, most people do not find pyracantha flowers unpleasant. The clusters of orange berries are not berries but pomes (a fruit with a core – think apple). By comparing the pictures of western mountain ash and pyracantha berries it is easy to see how the two can be confused, particularly from afar.
I was always told as a child that pyracantha berries were poisonous. They are not! However, when eaten raw the berries are very bitter. I can attest to their unpalatablilty. Yet when cooked, pyracantha berries taste good made into jams, jellies and marmalades.
In certain areas pyracantha has escaped cultivation and formed large patches that are almost impenetrable. Where this has occurred, pyracantha is being classified as a noxious weed/plant.