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A big crop of red berries is a traditional sign that a British winter will be cold. So far this year, tradition has been proved wrong. One class of berried shrub has been fruiting freely but Britain’s non-winter has been torrentially wet and frosty on very few nights. As a result, camellias have been flowering happily, especially in London gardens. Witch hazels have opened their buds about five weeks earlier than usual. So have the spring’s miniature irises. On January 4, the first flowers appeared on my Iris Lady Beatrix Stanley, just in time to be wrecked by heavy rain. Their first appearance usually occurs in late February.

From October onwards, these premature flowers have been preceded by profuse berries on those hardy shrubs, the cotoneasters. They have had a marvellous autumn and winter and their fruit has not been pillaged by birds: without any frost there are alternative foods for the feathered berry-strippers. I am a cotoneaster fan, but not many gardeners are. They are the most under-appreciated shrubs in cultivation. They even come with warnings on bossy websites that they should not be introduced into large- scale plantings because they may seed and eventually become invasive.

I have never seen cotoneasters take over fields, woods or gardens in Britain. In California a few varieties are said to seed so freely that they have become notifiable pests but Britain’s green and pleasant land does not suffer from them. Good cotoneasters grow into freestanding individual specimens. Others block out weeds on slopes or even under tall trees. Others make quick, pleasing hedges. If in doubt, send for a cotoneaster: few planters remember to do so.

For gardens placed like mine, cotoneasters have one great advantage. Unlike azaleas or rhododendrons, they will grow freely on alkaline soil, a fact of life with which I have to battle. They are also extremely hardy, surviving to below -15C. In the recent gales they remained upright. In the week before Christmas my favourite varieties were far more heavily berried than old bushes of holly. I used them indoors in winter arrangements where the berries last well.

Close-up of red berries in a cluster from a stem
Cotoneaster franchetii has been shown to capture air pollution in traffic-heavy cities © Martin Hughes-Jones/GAP Photos

For hedges, three types of cotoneaster are excellent but in different ways. Cotoneaster simonsii is the one to track down if you want a hedge no more than four to five feet high, set with dark green leaves and large scarlet berries in early autumn. It should be clipped lightly after berrying in order to keep it in as neat a shape as you wish. It grows well and if spaced as two bushes per yard it will combine into a good hedge. It is far cheaper than yew. Suppliers sometimes class it as semi-evergreen, or less, but they are covering themselves against a hard winter when bushes of simonsii will sometimes lose their leaves. They are fully evergreen more often than not, and even last year my bushes retained some of their leaves into spring. This excellent plant was discovered in the Himalayas and is at home too in Myanmar. In Britain, cotoneasters have become associated with fill-in planting in drab corners or on roundabouts under public management. Look at them differently, as lovely shrubs from the Asian havens where so much of our gardens’ best plants grow naturally.

Even classier is Cotoneaster franchetii, introduced from south west China in 1854. It grows more loosely than simonsii and is quicker to make a hedge up to six or seven feet. The elegant grey-green leaves have white undersides and a property that has only recently been assessed: they have small hairs and are good at capturing pollution in traffic-heavy cities. In California, franchetii is one of the cotoneasters regarded as potentially invasive, especially when birds spread its seeds far and wide. In gardens it is easily contained and should not be a problem. The berries are orange- red and extremely pretty in autumn. Franchetii can be lightly pruned after berrying but part of its charm is as a wispy hedge with short grey-green stems growing outwards from the main core. It is evergreen in a mild year but a cold spell will make it lose its leaves until spring. Never mind: it is then so elegant and grows well even near the sea.

The third hedger berries later and is capable of reaching greater height. Cotoneaster lacteus is a lovely plant, spreading forwards but readily clippable into a neat hedge. The brilliant red berries appear in big clusters in early winter and hang on very well. Over time a hedge of lacteus can grow way beyond the benchmark of six to seven feet, which most catalogues present. In the National Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin, Dublin, plants of lacteus were raised from seed sent from Yunnan by its first collector, George Forrest. They were then lightly clipped and left to grow for years. The hedge reached 20 feet, a fine sight. It pays to stake the individual bushes in a lacteus hedge when they are young and then to clip their new young growth in late summer. The berries appear on the older growth beneath which it has flowered by early June. As an individual bush, lacteus is also a fine sight, a great brightener of winter.

As tall specimens, two outstandingly good choices derive from gardens of the Rothschild family at Exbury in Hampshire. One, frigidus Cornubia, is the best tall cotoneaster, laden with red berries at a height of 12 feet or more. It is even willing to grow in semi-shade, though the berries there are fewer. Cornubia should be staked when young and is then no bother. It is a winner in a family of many contenders. Its yellow-berried rival is salicifolius Exburiensis, a variety with leaves of dark green and berries of apricot yellow, not the pale green yellow ones with which it is sometimes muddled in the mass trade: be sure to buy true Exburiensis from a first-class source. It is a wide shrub, but easily pruned.

Clusters of yellow berries among long leaves
Cotoneaster salicifolius Exburiensis offers apricot-coloured berries © Howard Rice/GAP Photos
Isolated small orange-red berries among tiny leaves
Cotoneaster conspicuus decorus is a favoured low-grower © Matt Anker/GAP Photos

These two tall cotoneasters from Rothschilds’ gardens are now rivalled by another, Cotoneaster ogisui, discovered more recently by Mikinori Ogisu in Sichuan. The RHS website will direct you to the few suppliers in Britain who already have plants in stock, but the beauty of this relative newcomer is that its red fruits are very big. They hang on plants up to 15 feet tall. Watch for it as stocks increase.

From impressive height to ground level, cotoneasters are versatile. Some of them will even block out weeds by growing nearly flat and stretching their branches widely. The basic horizontal cotoneaster is very familiar but my favourite low grower is conspicuus decorus, a vividly berried beauty with orange-red fruits and a strong layer of branches. It was found in China in 1924 and I can picture it from 2024 onwards in flat plantings on dry slopes, broken up by occasional plants of the wonderful yellow winter jasmine, Jasminum nudiflorum, left to grow naturally forwards without support. In my mind’s eye they are a lovely sight, worth realising in practice.

Cotoneasters have so many berries not because they are prophesying a cold winter but because the flowers attracted so much activity from bees in spring and summer. Bees, flowers, masses of berries, aptness as hedges, covers or semi-trees: cotoneasters have it all, and yet most of us ignore them.

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