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  • Writer's pictureJohn R

The World's Clumsiest Tree

This sad twisted clown of a plant is just crying out for love...

It’s time to focus on the very center of things, the locus of our botanical netherworld, which is the pyracantha tree/shrub that grows at the front of our property.

Pyracantha is an evergreen shrub and classified in the rose family. That doesn’t stop our stalwart little pyracantha from aspiring—Pinocchio-like—to be a real tree, but its resemblance to a real tree is sketchy. The Tim Burton-esque assortment of trunks doesn’t so much resemble a tree as it does a giant drunk alien spider trying to do a hornpipe.

It’s not the pyracantha’s fault. A succession of previous homeowners with lofty arboreal aspirations saw fit to trim off the lower branches to encourage the plant to look more like a regular tree. These limb surgeries weren't exactly artful, and as a result the plant has been rendered a tad grotesque. I prefer to think of it as an awkward nonconformist, like the most uncoordinated kid at the prom who won’t stop dancing. There’s not a whole lot of grace or dignity—and for that you have to love it. It’s trying to fit in but in an awkwardly sweet way. It’s a mutt, a fifteen-point underdog, a botanical Don Quixote. It flounders around, blissfully unaware of its clumsy presentation.

The Tim Burton-esque assortment of trunks doesn’t so much resemble a tree as it does a giant drunk alien spider trying to do a hornpipe.

I can’t help but root for our pyracantha no pun intended. Just looking at it replenishes my stores of empathy, and that’s a tank that we all could stand to top off.

Unfortunately, in terms of likability, the pyracantha keeps tripping over its own dick. It has some of the wickedest thorns in the natural world (some botanical nerds might insist that these are not thorns but prickles). They can be up to three inches long (the thorns, not the nerds) and jut out at right angles from every limb, branch, and twig so that the interior of the canopy is black hole of pain trust me on that. The needles are so hypodermically sharp that ancient tribes used to use them to sew the skins of alligators to make tote bags.

Actually, I made that up. I have no idea if ancient tribes sewed alligator skins, but it sounds plausible when you say it with a straight face. Anyway, in ancient times I’m sure toting was a widely practiced if not downright inescapable activity, so the sewing notion isn’t beyond the realm of possibility, especially where alligator territory meets up with pyracantha’s Hardiness Zones of 5 through 9.

By the way, the well-deserved common name for pyracantha is firethorn.

Firethorn has yet another unfortunate attribute: It’s pretty much of a zombie: it keeps coming back from the dead, staggering out of the dirt after you’ve made every attempt to finish it off. We’ve had other pyracantha in our yard, an inevitability which is sometimes referred to as a conspiracy of pyracantha (actually it’s just me that calls it that). Trying to eliminate them simply pisses the plant off. You can cut it down and pour vinegar on the roots and gasoline over the stumps and torch it off and then dig up whatever is left and toss that into the yard waste bucket and next spring it will just reappear, perhaps a few feet away from the original spot, strong, green, and full of insidious intent. (I should add that this kind of tenacity is not entirely underappreciated at Schiddygarden because anything that grows here of its own free will tends toward the plus column.)

Deb hates this tree/shrub. She’s been attacked by its thorns while attempting to care for other nearby plants and she now harbors smoldering resentment. She thinks the trunks are homely and diminish our curb appeal (such as it is). She’s convinced the plant is dangerous if not consciously mean-spirited, and that any redeeming qualities cannot overcome the negatives. Count her in for the pouring of vinegar and gasoline.

I understand. This firethorn is about as bad-ass as a tree/shrub can get. I’ve gotten stabbed enough times that I do not go forth to prune the beast without girding my precious loins with heavy jeans, a canvass long-sleeve shirt, thick leather gloves (like really thick), a hard hat (a baseball-type cap is easily penetrated—ridiculously easily, trust me), goggles over my glasses, and hard ear protectors. Even then, pain is coming.

And yet:

In the fall, blushes of orange begin to appear. These are the berries (pomes in botanical nerdspeak) just beginning to ripen, and they are the crown jewel, the awesome possum, the total bomb of the plant known as pyracantha. Over the course of the summer the irascible branches have been busy producing fruit—pea-size berries that grow in thick clusters—and late in the season the greenish berries start to plumpen (if that’s not a word it should be) and start to take on autumnal color. Over the subsequent few weeks the colors deepen, nearly imperceptibly, until early winter when the branches suddenly erupt with blood-red sprays.

Pyracantha stylin' berries in the snow.

It's a totally cool phenomenon, especially at that time of year, and it certainly justifies (in my mind) keeping the plant. I just like it.

But hold on—the best is yet to happen: The drunk robins are coming!

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