How to Cultivate Invasive Firethorn Bush to Attract Birds to Your Winter Yard

How to Cultivate Invasive Firethorn Bush to Attract Birds to Your Winter Yard

Pyracantha coccinea, commonly known as firethorn bush, was introduced to North America through the nursery trade and has been planted extensively throughout the United States. Although its bright red berries make it a beautiful addition to any garden, firethorn bush is classified as an invasive species in certain states, such as Texas, Georgia, Virginia, Florida, and California. It poses a risk to our native ecosystems because it can outcompete endangered native species and have negative effects on native wildlife that can’t feed on this plant. People are drawn to this semi-evergreen shrub mainly due to its bright red berries, which provide food for birds. However, birds disperse the seeds, leading to the inevitable spread of this non-native plant. Despite its attractiveness, planting this beautiful shrub in your yard requires careful consideration.

Although firethorn bush is a stunning addition to any garden, it is dangerous to our native ecology. Invasive species pose significant threats to native ecosystems and biodiversity. These invasive plants can cause rare, crucial native species to go extinct, thus affecting the entire ecosystem and food chain. Unfortunately, while firethorn bushes may be visually appealing, they can be harmful to the local ecology. Once planted, it is impossible to control their spread because birds disperse the seeds. Fortunately, there are many native species that can attract birds without posing a threat to our local ecosystems. Planting native plants can bring beauty to your yard while benefiting local wildlife and combating habitat loss.

What is the firethorn bush?

little girl walking alongside firethorn bush hedge

Oleg Kovtun/Getty Images

Firethorn bush is a semi-evergreen upright bush often used as a hedge or trellised vine and can grow from 6 to 18 feet tall and wide. Part of the allure is the white blossoms that blanket the plant during the spring, turning into scarlet red berries in the fall. Firethorn bush is a member of the rose family and is native to Southern Europe. However, its range spreads as far east as Iran. Introduced in the U.S., it can be found in disturbed sites, prairie and coastal environments, and roadsides. However, it has very sharp thorns, so it is sometimes trained to be a privacy hedge or grow on an espalier. The thorns can pose a significant safety risk for pets or children, as they are known to cause swelling and infection around the puncture wounds.

It is tolerant of hot and dry conditions, clay soil, drought-tolerant, and even mildly salt-tolerant. Additionally, non-native shrubs like firethorn bushes can be attractive to gardeners because they are often low-maintenance and drought-tolerant. However, this also means they can easily escape your yard and thrive in wild areas with few resources. While it may seem counterintuitive because they provide food for birds, they cause more damage to the local environment than good and contribute to further biodiversity loss and ecological degradation.

What to plant instead: buttonbush

buttonbush with butterfly

Donna Bollenbach/Shutterstock

It can be disappointing to say goodbye to beautiful bird-loving plants in the name of conservation and biodiversity — even though it’s a good deed, we’re allowed to be a little sad about it. If your goal is to attract birds to your garden, there are plenty of native plants that do this and look equally breathtaking. You are more likely to attract birds to your yard using native plants than invasive ornamentals because our local birds have co-evolved with these native plants and depend on them to survive.

An excellent bird magnet and gorgeous replacement for a firethorn bush is the native buttonbush or Cephalanthus occidentalis. Buttonbush is a beautiful native species with a similar growth habit to firethorn and incredible globed white flowers that look like the most precious little puffballs or pincushions you’ve ever seen! Like the firethorn bush, the buttonbush has glossy dark green leaves, grows to about the same height, and is a stunning, showy ornamental bush that blows the invasive firethorn bush out of the water. The nectar will attract butterflies, bees, hummingbirds, and other pollinators, and the fruit will attract incredible and rare birds to your yard. Other than buttonbush, there are lots of other native species that attract birds and make an excellent replacement for firethorn bush. Some examples are yaupon holly, firebush, coral honeysuckle, wild currant, California holly, and wild evergreen sumac.

Dr Heidi Parkes

By Dr Heidi Parkes

Senior Information Extension Officer QLD Dept of Agriculture & Fisheries.