Spare a thought for our winter jewel - the cotoneaster!

Torbay Weekly

We are now in the depths of winter and it’s safe to say most people are looking forward to the extended light the longer days will offer. This year's winter solstice takes place on December 21 and from then on I’m usually on count down to Spring.

At this time of year it can be tricky to find any colour in the garden when all we seem to be having to do seems like outdoor tidying up. It’s impossible to stroll around the garden without seeing jobs that need doing.

Collapsed ferns need cutting down and taking away to stop them dying down and hiding snowdrops or egg yolk and purple crocuses.

Holly needs pruning to form straighter edges rather than going haywire at the sides the minute it gets that heady combination of sunshine and water on its back.

Thankfully with all these tasks in preparation for next year it can be easy to overlook the ubiquitous cotoneaster. At this time of year it is heavily laden with bright red berries crawling along its arched backbones. If you want to see a spectacular display of this shrub, next time you pass the Marldon roundabout going out of Paignton look to your left and you will see a leviathan, dinosaur shaped cotoneaster resembling a great patch of red dots almost hugging the dual carriageway.

Cotoneaster lacteus is a native of the north of China and the Himalayas where it grows wild and tolerates both dry and cold conditions well which makes it suitable for low maintenance gardens. It will spread to about 5m/16ft if its given the light it needs.

Cotoneaster can be given a bad reputation due to its proliferation in supermarket car parks and the fact that it is quite prickly, but the type of tiny thorns that always seem to find their target. It works well weaved into a mixed hedge and will form a near impenetrable barrier, especially if, as I once did, you have a problem with people falling into your hedge every Christmas. Being related to hawthorn and the rose it is in good company as far as thorns go.

You could also try the variety ‘RedAlert’ which have a habit of clinging to a rockery and look like the berries are pouring over the stones. Giving it a cut in summer will usually lead to an abundance of berries later in they year, so is worth doing if you remember. They will keep their display of scarlet fruit for months in winter because the birds tend to leave them well alone for some reason.

I'm sure the birds are well fed by us gardeners throughout the cold months and are quite choosy.

Having said that this shrubs other great gift is that you hardly notice its there until everywhere else becomes barren. I find it interesting that we laud the holly bush at this time of year but cotoneaster hardly gets a mention yet is more reliable in providing the bright red berries we love to see.

I might cut some and bring it indoors this week.

Even when the berries have dwindled to nothing you are still left with those pretty heart shaped evergreen leaves. In some cases that green is so dark it looks black and shines like its just been polished.

Cotoneasters can vary in size from Marldon’s beast to something that covers a rock you can lift with one hand. As they say, there’s one for every garden, and most gardens seem to have at least one. There is even a specific one for climbing up walls, aptly named ‘horizontalis’.

It’s right now that it comes into its own and displays its store of winter jewels. Given the flexibility of this multi-purpose shrub, it's no surprise its as popular as it is. The only thing you might need to decide is what shape you want to cover.