Here's an in-depth look at the cotoneaster plant where you can learn about its characteristics, growing conditions, uses, and some of its species. We've also added some tips on how to plant these low-growing, deciduous shrubs.
Cotoneaster plants are members of the genus cotoneaster, and the botanical family rosaceae, or the rose family. This species of flowering plant is very closely related to hawthorns (genus cratageus), firethorns (genus pyracantha), photinias (genus photonias), and rowans (genus sorbus).
There are an estimated 300 different cotoneaster species that are currently recognized, and they are highly valued as ornamental plants because of their interesting growth habit, beautiful tiny flowers, and lovely colored pome fruits.
Cotoneasters are native to several continents, including Africa, temperate regions in Asia and Europe, with the greatest diversity of species occurring in China.
Cotoneasters get their name from latin derivation. Cotoneum is the latin term for quince, and the suffix, aster, is the latin term for “resembling”. This is in reference to the tiny fruits that this plant produces, which “resemble” tiny quinces!
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What do Cotoneaster Plants Look Like?
Cotoneasters are known for having charming spring and summer flowers. Different species will have a range of colors, starting with white flower clusters to cream, light pink to dark pink, and sometimes as dark as scarlet red.
Flowers usually bloom from late spring to early summer and persist through into the late summer. They occur either solitary or in corymbs of up to 100 individual flowers!
Once a flower is pollinated, it will produce a fruit in the form of a small pome. These fruits are usually quite small and contain up to 3-5 seeds. They are usually pink, bright red, or orange, though sometimes deepen to maroon or black when the are matured.
Cotoneaster leaves are alternately arranged along the short shoots of the plant. A leaf is usually ovate or lanceolate in shape, though certain species have rounded leaves.
Different species can be either evergreen (persistent green foliage) or deciduous (falling autumn foliage) and can be anywhere from half an inch to 5 inches in length.
Cotoneaster plants have many different growth habits. The majority of species grow as shrubs occurring between 0.5-1 metres in height, though many in between grow as ground hugging plants. The remainder grow to be small trees of up to 15 metres in height.
Groundcover species (prostrate) usually can be found growing in the wild at higher altitudes, usually between 3000-4000 metres above sea level. This diversity is usually found in the Himalayas. Larger, more erect growth habit species grow in woodlands and plains at lower altitudes.
A common growth pattern that can be observed across the species is the growth of dimorphic shoots that produce short shoots. This creates a type of herringbone branching pattern.
What are Some Cotoneaster Species?
Bearberry Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster Dammeri)
The bearberry cotoneaster is a low growing variety that is commonly used for groundcover. They produce small white flowers that bloom in the spring, and small red fruits that emerge in the late summer.
They are also prized for their fall foliage that turn a beautiful bronzed purple color. A very popular cultivar of this species is known as the coral beauty cotoneaster, which has highly ornamental fruits that are an orange coral color.
Cranberry Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster Apiculatus)
The cranberry cotoneaster is a variety that is often used as a groundcover plant that can help with soil erosion control, especially when growing on slopes. This species grows pink summer blossoms that are followed by small red berries in the fall.
They can also grow to be small shrubs, anywhere between half a metre and a full metre in height. They have beautiful fall foliage that turns bronzed red.
Creeping Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster Adpressus)
The creeping cotoneaster is a deciduous shrub variety that grows to be around 2 metres in height. These plants are known for having very small rounded leaves, which differentiates it from most other species.
Creeping cotoneaster plants have grow clusters of white flowers with bright scarlet red berries. They’re grown as groundcover plants in temperate regions, hence their “creeping” growth habit.
Franchet’s Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster Franchetii)
Franchet’s cotoneaster or orange cotoneaster is an evergreen shrub variety that can grow to be over 3 metres in height. They have highly ornamental pink and white flowers that bloom all summer long, which are then followed by charming red pome fruits.
Hollyberry Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster Bullatus)
The hollyberry cotoneaster is an evergreen shrub variety that can grow to be 3-4 metres in height with arching branches.
This cotoneaster shrub has simply shaped, dark glossy green leaves and striking white flowers. Coupled with the dark red berry summer fruit and glossy green leaves, this variety greatly resembles a holly tree!
Late Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster Lacteus)
The late cotoneaster or milkflower, is a large evergreen shrub variety that can grow to be over 4 metres in height. They produce dense clusters of white flowers that eventually turn into masses of small red fruit.
This red fruit is especially lovely to look at – due to the high volume of fruiting – though they are completely avoided by birds! This makes them a rather appealing ornamental option if you’re looking to deter fruit eating birds from your property.
Little leaf Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster Microphyllus)
The little leaf cotoneaster is an evergreen groundcover variety that has slender creeping branches that grow very densely together.
Leaves are ovular and a dark green color, that bring a stark contrast combined with the sparks of white flowers. Rosy red fruits replace flowers in autumn.
Rock Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster Horizontalis)
The rock cotoneaster is a short shrub that usually only grows to be about a metre tall. This species is sought after for its flat sprays of glossy green leaves.
This variety produces white and pink flowers and bright red cherry looking fruits. They are commonly used for hedges or as a groundcover plant.
Spreading Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster Divaricatus)
The spreading cotoneaster is a variety that is most commonly used for screening hedges. They grow in a very attractive rounded crown shape naturally, and will obtain heights over 3 metres.
Willowleaf Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster Salicifolius)
The willowleaf cotoneaster is a variety of evergreen shrub that is low lying with an arched branching habit. They are known for having leaves very similar to that of a willow tree.
They produce white flowers and very showy, red apple like pome fruits. They are native to the mountains of western China, though have been cultivated all over the world.
Where do Cotoneaster Plants Grow?
Cotoneasters are a native plant to the Palaeartic regions of the world. This include temperate Asia, temperate Europe, northern Africa, and southwestern China in the mountainous regions.
They are able to be cultivated all over the world, as they are a relatively cold hardy plant. They are resilient and can tolerate many climates, and can exist in USDA hardiness zones 5 through 8.
What are the Growing Conditions of a Cotoneaster?
Cotoneaster plants can tolerate almost any soil type, as long as it is very well drained. They tend to perform best in fertile soils. Applying a thick layer of mulch over the soil will help retain moisture in the earth, and it will also suppress the growth of weeds.
Cotoneasters are a very drought tolerant plant, and they only need to be watered during an irregular dry spy. Otherwise, they perform perfectly well with natural weather and precipitation.
Though it varies from species to species, cotoneasters overall perform best in full sun or partial shade conditions.
Depending on the species, certain cotoneasters will be evergreen in warmer regions, and deciduous in more temperate regions. This usually indicates how cold hardy they are. These plants can exist in USDA growing zones 5 through 8.
Though cotoneasters do not need regular fertilization in order to grow prosperously, it’s never a bad idea to introduce a general purpose fertilizer to a shrub that doesn’t seem to be growing well.
Though cotoneasters do not need to be pruned in order to remain healthy, they benefit from pruning to help control spread of disease. Otherwise, pruning can be done any time of year to help maintain an attractive growth habit to the preference of the land owner.
All in all, there really isn’t all that much that cotoneasters can’t tolerate. The main thing to remember is that they prefer well drained soil, but otherwise, it’s easy livin’!
How are Cotoneasters Used?
Cotoneasters are very commonly grown as garden shrubs. Depending on their growth habit, they can be used as a groundcover plant, as a hedging plant, as a screen plant, as a small ornamental tree, or even for erosion control on sloped terrains. They make for exceptional addition to a rock garden, and are a popular choice for the art of bonsai!
They are coveted for their beautiful glossy foliage that changes to beautiful autumn bronze colors, for their dainty flowers, and for their explosions of bright red berries in the summer as well. Growing cotoneaster can be done by any novice or expert gardener.
Cotoneasters are very important to their local ecosystems. Their berries provide food for several bird and small mammal species, their dense branch growth habit provides shelter for beneficial insects and small mammals, and their flowers provide nectar for important pollinators; like bees, moths, hummingbirds, and wasps.