It is probably because my garden was a blank canvas two years ago that I am seemingly obsessed with dull, foundation plants at the moment. I long for the day when I have created some shelter and shade, have started to convert the geology I have for something approaching soil and I can buy and plant the delicate rarities I so crave. But, as the past two years have taught me, you must not run till you can walk. It is frustrating but I must not be silly about these things.
It reminds me of my ‘gap year’ when I was a Kew student. Having spent a year surrounded by the fascinating flora of the world where a plant was worthy of cultivation just because it ‘was’, I found myself working in Wandsworth Parks Department in west London. My ideas suddenly had to change. Here plants had to fight back. Nothing survived unless it was surrounded by fencing or had thorns. And it was not just the plants that were at risk. I remember being shot at from flats in Battersea, presumably by someone who did not like berberis. It made me appreciate a whole new range of plants I had otherwise overlooked as well as reinforcing the importance of ‘desire lines’ – those paths naturally developed by the public no matter where you put the actual paving. They are important in your own garden and you can see some in your local supermarket car park where shrubs are trampled by shoppers who, having just spent a hour at the gym to burn off calories, cannot make the effort to walk round a bed of cotoneasters.
So the latest purchase for the garden is Cotoneaster ‘Cornubia’. I am never proscriptive about pronunciation – just say what you like as long as it is understood – but I really think it is best to call them cot-own-ee-aster rather than cotton-easter. As a genus I regard them a bit like hypericums, easily recognized but rather too much of a muchness to get very excited about.
They are generally medium-sized or large shrubs with alternate leaves and small flowers. The blooms can be rather open and flat in which case they are usually white or they can be bell-shaped and then pink. In either case they are loved by bees. The berries are generally red and can be carried in large clusters or singly along the stems. Many of the species are covered in hairs which can be dense on the undersides of the leaves or young shoots to give a grey effect. There are deciduous and evergreen types and they provide good shelter for the garden and for birds, which also love the berries. They are quite close to pyracantha and crataegus but do not have thorns. The fact that birds like the berries means that they are quite good colonisers and can be invasive in some countries. I know that I am rather flippant about invasive plants sometimes because some of the ‘illegal aliens’ that get press coverage are not likely to pose a real threat in all areas but some cotoneasters are definitely naturalised in the British Isles, for good or bad. Personally, if I were a starving blackbird I would not care if my lunch came from a native crategus or an introduced cotoneaster.
‘Cornubia’ is a big cotoneaster, and it can be treated as a large shrub or a small tree up to 8m high and wide. It is as the latter that my plant is destined. There are not many evergreen small trees and none that will grow as quickly as this. My only reservation about it, apart from the dry shade beneath is that birds love it so much that a seat, to make a restful, shady place in the heat of summer (LOL) will be spoiled by the defacations of ungrateful birds.
In mild winters this is evergreen but it is best to regard it as semi-evergreen. In early summer it is adorned with clusters of off-white flowers, but it is in autumn and winter it excels, and is one of the most spectacular and reliable berrying shrubs. It will grow in most soils, including chalk, though is not overly fond of laying water, something that, I fear, mine will have to cope with from time to time. Clay is not a problem.
W J Bean wrote ‘It bears enormous crops of brilliant red fruits and is not surpassed in that respect by any other cotoneaster.’ Although usually listed as just ‘Cornubia’ or C. frigidus ‘Cornubia’ it is a hybrid with more sap of frigidus in it than the other parent which may be C. salicifolius. It arose as a seedling at Exbury gardens in Devon, England and gained an Award of Merit in 1933. The same parentage, but with a yellow-fruited C. frigidus, gave us ‘Exburyensis’ which is the best yellow-fruited, large cotonester and ‘Rothschildianus’ which is slower growing with deeper yellow fruits.