How to care for your cotoneasters
Away from the suburbs, among professional horticulturists, especially shrub authorities such as Sir Harold Hillier, cotoneasters were and are regarded as one of the most important groups of shrubs. With 400 species to choose from, they offer a diversity of habit and evergreen or deciduous subjects. Species have been selected, hybridised and named.
As gardens have evolved, good groundcover plants have come to the fore and cotoneasters are an obvious choice.
Varieties of cotoneaster
The bearberry cotoneaster, Cotoneaster dammeri, is a modest little plant. But once established, the low-creeping stems and small, dark-green leaves efficiently smother weeds and cover the soil beneath trees and larger shrubs; it will flow gracefully over low walls and on slopes and banks with white flowers in spring and scarlet berries in autumn.
Other low-growing cotoneasters, such as Cotoneaster salicifolius ‘Gnom’ and Cotoneaster procumbens ‘Queen of Carpets’, are less well known, but valued by those of who grow them. In my own garden these reliable groundcover subjects cope with the tough growing conditions experienced in recent years – both in terms of temperature and rainfall extremes. Their evergreen foliage looks good throughout the year and the colourful berries last well into winter.
At the other end of the scale, the large-growing cotoneasters make excellent evergreen trees. Cotoneaster ‘Cornubia’ is one of the finest with broad, spreading branches and dark-green leaves. In spring it offers loose clusters of white flowers and is a magnificent sight in autumn when some of its semi-evergreen leaves turn gold and begin to fall, and large bunches of deep-scarlet berries provide a feast for wild birds.
Where to plant cotoneasters
Most cotoneaster species are bushy shrubs that grow in scrub or on the edge of temperate woodlands. Franchet’s cotoneaster Cotoneaster franchetii falls into this category and is a good example of the versatility of these plants. It grows as an airy shrub with ascending, arching branches and small, well-spaced leaves. It works well in an evergreen mixed planting or as a free-standing transitional shrub. You can use it to lighten heavy evergreens, such as laurels and mahonias, or you can use it to create an excellent backdrop to shrub roses and perennials. It can be trimmed as a hedge or it can be trained against a wall offering flowers and fruits, and it even works well in naturalistic planting schemes.
The wide range of sizes and habits offered by cotoneasters makes them suitable for a spectrum of planting schemes. Large-growing cotoneasters, such as Cotoneaster ‘Cornubia’ and Cotoneaster x watereri, are perfect for screening or as large, background shrubs in wide borders. They can also be trained as medium-sized evergreen trees.
Those of prostrate habit, especially Cotoneaster dammeri, Cotoneaster salicifolius and Cotoneaster x suecicus are very valuable evergreen groundcover shrubs that thrive in sun or shade. They are excellent on banks and slopes, embracing the contours gracefully where more upright subjects look awkward.
How to grow cotoneasters
Cotoneasters are easy to grow: they are tolerant of most soils including clay, as long as it is not waterlogged, and will also grow well in dry conditions on chalk and sand. They are also ideal for new-build gardens where other plants might struggle.
They will thrive in sun or shade, although flowering and fruiting is usually better when a plant gets three or more hours of direct sunlight a day during the growing season. In a smaller garden, plants that tolerate the shade and rain shadow of walls and fences are particularly valuable. Several, including Cotoneaster franchetii, Cotoneaster x watereri and Cotoneaster frigidus, can be trained against walls for colour.
Unlike many of the shrubs that are grown for their flowers cotoneasters do not need regular pruning and are undemanding when it comes to feeding and regular care – making them a worthwhile, low-maintenance option within a mixed planting.
Cotoneasters offer many of the qualities I look for most in a garden plant: they are reliable subjects that have more than one season of interest, they are plants that can cope with the extremes of weather, and they are wildlife friendly, offering shelter to birds and insects, as well as nectar and pollen for bees and other pollinators, and food for wild birds in autumn and winter. Though they may be sometimes overlooked, they are worth seeking out.
Choosing cotoneasters for your garden
Most cotoneasters grow swiftly and soon make an impact, so choose smaller plants in two- or three-litre pots. Even if your aim is to create a hedge, you are better off with several small plants. Because of their versatility several cotoneasters, such as Cotoneaster microphyllus and Cotoneaster simonsii, have been widely used for amenity planting. They cope with tough treatment and indiscriminate pruning. In a garden situation the only care needed when pruning is the preservation of their natural habit, unless they are used for hedging.
Pruning to control shape and size is best carried out in late winter or early spring. However, pruning can be done at any time of the year without causing harm.
The best cotoneasters to grow for your garden
A good groundcover plant for slopes and banks, or to grow against low walls. Small, dark-green leaves turn flame red in autumn. Profuse white spring flowers develop into sealing- wax red berries in autumn. 90cm. RHS H7, USDA 5a-7b†.
Cotoneaster salicifolius ‘Pink Champagne’
A dense, vigorous shrub with arching stems and willow-like, evergreen leaves. White flowers develop into yellow berries, turning salmon-pink with age. 2.5m. AGM*. RHS H6, USDA 7a-10b.
Cotoneaster x suecicus ‘Coral Beauty’
A dense, low shrub with abundant berries on arching branches of evergreen leaves that take on purple tints in winter. An attractive groundcover. 50cm. AGM. RHS H6, USDA 5a-8b.
Cotoneaster x suecicus ‘Juliette’
A superb plant for groundcover around large shrubs with grey-green
and cream variegated leaves, and large berries. 45cm. AGM. RHS H6,
Cotoneaster frigidus ‘Fructuluteo’
Vigorous shrub of broad, spreading habit that can grow into a tree. Clusters of white spring flowers develop into heavy bunches of creamy-yellow berries. 10m. RHS H6, USDA 6a-9b.
A ground-hugging shrub with shining, evergreen leaves. Flowers appear singly in spring, followed by red berries in autumn. An excellent groundcover subject for shade. 30cm. RHS H6, USDA 5a-8b.
A large, spreading shrub with narrow leaves and large clusters of cream-yellow fruits in autumn. Useful plant to add colour among heavy evergreens. 5m. AGM. RHS H6.
A graceful shrub with leaves that are green above and silver-grey beneath. Pinkish white flowers give rise to orange-scarlet fruits. Good in naturalistic planting schemes. 1.8m. RHS H6, USDA 6a-10b.
Cotoneaster salicifolius ‘Gnom’
A low-growing shrub with long, trailing stems and small evergreen leaves. Small clusters of spring flowers develop into shiny orange-red berries. 45cm. AGM. RHS H6, USDA 5a-8b.
Perhaps the best tree cultivar for fruit, with bunches of scarlet berries in autumn weighing down the arching branches. Older leaves turn gold and fall as the berries ripen. 5m. AGM. RHS H6, USDA 6a-9b.
A compact evergreen shrub with stiff branches and tiny dark, evergreen leaves. A useful small shrub for rocky banks and under the light shade of deciduous trees. 90cm. RHS H6, USDA 5a-9b.
Cotoneaster x watereri ‘John Waterer’
A large, semi-evergreen shrub with long, spreading branches and narrow, leathery leaves. Fruiting is prolific and provides a feast for wild birds. 3m. RHS H6, USDA 6a-9b.
Cotoneaster atropurpureus ‘Variegatus’
Pretty, grey-green and white variegated leaves, followed by red berries. Brilliant autumn leaf colour. Excellent for a shaded border. 60cm. AGM. RHS H6, USDA 6a-8b.
Where to buy and see cotoneaster
• Ashwood Nurseries, Ashwood Lower Lane, Ashwood, Kingswinford,
West Midlands DY6 0AE. Tel 01384 401996, ashwoodnurseries.com
• Barcham Trees
Eye Hill Drove, Soham, Ely, Cambridgeshire CB7 5XF. Tel 01353 720748, barcham.co.uk
• Beeches Nursery
Crown Hill, Ashdon, Saffron Walden, Essex CB10 2HB. Tel 01799 584362, beechesnursery.co.uk
• Burncoose Nurseries, Gwennap, Redruth, Cornwall TR16 6BJ. Tel 01209 860011, burncoose.co.uk
• Kelways Plants, Barrymore Farm, Picts Hill, Langport, Somerset TA10 9EZ. Tel 01458 250521, kelways.co.uk
• Larch Cottage Nurseries, Melkinthorpe, Penrith, Cumbria CA10 2DR. Tel 01931 712404, larchcottage.co.uk
• The Sir Harold, Hillier Gardens*, Jermyns Lane, Ampfield, Romsey, Hampshire SO51 0QA. Tel 01794 368787, hants.gov.uk/thingstodo/hilliergardens *National Collection holder
Author Andy McIndoe is a writer, broadcaster and horticulturist.