Exploring Urban Cotoneasters in Newcastle

Recently, I’ve been taking a closer look at wild and naturalised cotoneasters in Newcastle. Here’s what I’ve found so far, from an amateur’s perspective.

Cotoneasters are a tricky bunch. Over 70 species have been recorded growing in a naturalised state in the UK, with new ones popping up all the time. Of these, many look remarkably similar, with even the ‘standard’ urban cotoneasters such as Wall Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster horizontalis) having several lookalikes. Perhaps this is the reason I have willfully ignored them until now.

Despite the difficulty associated with identifying them, cotoneasters are an interesting bunch – thuggish invaders or successful urban colonists, depending on who you speak to. Aided and abetted by birds, these tenacious shrubs seem to appear everywhere from gravel driveways and walls to woodland, scrub, and hedgerows. A factor that makes them an interesting group to look at. Keen to learn about those growing on my doorstep, that’s exactly what I’ve been trying to do over recent months.

Please note that while I am getting better at documenting my finds, I was lacking many of the photos required for this post. I have included images from the fabulous resource that is Saxifraga to illustrate key species.

Urban Cotoneasters

So far, I have recorded 11 species of cotoneaster growing in a wild state on walks close to home. Some of these are well-known locally, with others being scarce or poorly recorded. Some initial notes on these are shared below…

Tree Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster frigidus)

C. frigidus seems to be one of the more conspicuous cotoneasters in the city. It is fairly widespread as a planted ornamental, commonly along bridleways and roadsides. It can also be seen planted in parks, including an impressive specimen in the coalfield area of Jesmond Dene.

Given how often it is planted, it is perhaps little surprise that this species readily escapes and it some places, it can be difficult to tell exactly what is wild and what isn’t. Still, I have recorded it growing wild at several sites.

Besides its large and impressive size, the large, willow-like leaves on this species sport veins which are faint and hardly impressed. The latter is a useful aid when telling it apart from two other species mentioned below.

Willow-leaved Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster salicifolius)

This is a contender for Newcastle’s commonest cotoneaster. Now I know what to look for, I am seeing it everywhere from rocky riversides and wasteground to hedgerows and more natural habitats. C. salicifolius is widely planted locally in amenity beds and it isn’t uncommon to observe several smart-looking cultivars. It appears to spread wildly with a little help from our feathered friends.

This species is generally smaller than C. frigidus and often is more of a shrub than a tree. Unlike the former, it is also evergreen and its smaller leaves boast strongly impressed veins.

Waterer’s Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster x watereri)

A hybrid between C. frigidus and C. salicifolius this cotoneaster is scantly recorded in a wild state locally. It is popular in cultivation and can be seen in a planted state in several places around the city. That said, it grows wild too and records on three occasions relate to seemingly wild specimens growing in close proximity to both parent species. I imagine there are a lot more out there to be found.

C. x watereri is intermediate between its parents in having large leaves which as moderately impressed and often turn reddish in winter. The leaves also remain hairy beneath which does not seem to be the case in C. salicifolius. It is a fairly large, erect plant – often closer to C. frigidus than C. salicifolius in my very limited experience.

Franchet’s Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster franchetii)

One of the cotoneasters with fuzzy white undersides to their leaves and I confess the one to which I assigned all such plants without much thought previously. C. franchetii is extremely common in amenity planting, used everywhere from roundabouts to city car parks, and unsurprisingly, is one of the more widely recorded species in the North East. That said, two of the three specimens I have stumbled across recently haven’t been C. franchetii at all (more on that soon)!

So far, I have found this species a couple of times growing as both a pavement plant and in scrubby patches. The white underside to the leaves and white fuzz on the new twigs give it a distinctive look and at least put you in the right ballpark. The leaves are also small (25-37mm) as opposed to the species below.

Stern’s Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster sternianus)

Pottering along one of the local bridleways in late 2022, I stopped to record what I assumed was C. franchetii growing in a shady patch beneath some tall trees. I did notice it had ‘large’ leaves but thought little of it other than snatching a sample to key out later. It wasn’t until I stumbled across the fab Alien Plants of Belgium website that I realised that these ‘large’ leaves likely meant a completely different ID entirely and a new county record.

C. sternianus looks a lot like C. franchetti but sports noticeably longer leaves – 37-49mm as opposed to the 25-37mm of the latter. Mine came in at an average of 42mm. It can also possess an additional fourth nutlet (seed) inside the fruit; though the berries I collected all had three.

I have since found this species masquerading as C. franchetti again at Walker and feel fairly confident with the ID. Still, I’ll make a point of returning to see both in flower. This species is known fairly widely in the UK, so perhaps I shouldn’t be too surprised.

Hollyberry Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster bullatus)

Along with C. salicifolius and C. franchetii, this is one of the more widely recorded cotoneasters. It is commonly planted and tends to pop up in semi-shady areas such as woodland, parkland, scrub, and hedgerows. It may be that C. bullatus is over-recorded locally, including by myself, as further reading reveals it a lookalike species, Cotoneaster rehderi, is more abundant in other areas of the country. Still, some recent records are definitely this one – the leaves were too small for rehderi.

A large, attractive cotoneaster, this species has bullate (blistered) leaves owing to the strongly impressed veins on the upper leaf surface. It also has a more spreading habit than its cousin which will no doubt help when looking closer at this group in 2023.

Late Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster lacteus)

Not previously recorded in our region, C. lacteus has been recorded widely but infrequently in other parts of the country. It is a rather lovely-looking plant and as such, is regularly planted as part of amenity schemes. With the aid of birds, it is known to occasionally appear in a wild state, particularly in hedgerows and ruderal patches.

During a walk with the Northumberland Botany Group in late 2022, we gathered samples from a self-sown cotoneaster growing beside a busy public bridleway at Walker. These were later revealed to be nice species – the first recorded locally.

C. lacteus is a tall plant (to 8m) and sports fairly large oval leaves with strongly impressed veins. These are broadest towards the tip and remain on the plant year-round. While fruiting, it boasts prominent bunches of shiny red berries which as round in shape.

Himilayan Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster simonsii)

One of the most widely recorded naturalised cotoneasters in the UK, C. simonsii is very popular in planting schemes. It is known to readily self-seed into the wild where it prefers dry habitats including walls, railway sidings, and brownfield. It has also been recorded from woodland.

Isolated specimens of this species appear fairly frequently in Newcastle, in a whole manner of habitats. It is interesting to note, however, that it is seldom present in any great number.

C. simonsii is a stiffly erect, bushy species growing to around 3m. Its leaves are deciduous (supposedly), shiny, and fairly small (1.5-2.5cm). They are also appressed hairy with greenish undersides.

Wall Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster horizontalis)

The omnipresent urban cotoneaster and by far the commonest low-growing species found in the city. Planted frequently in gardens and bird-sown on walls, in pavements, and across rough, stony areas, C. horizontalis gets everywhere. To date, I have found it in around twenty monads within the city.

This species is best identified by the ‘herringbone’ pattern of its branches which form distinctive, fan-like sprays. It is important to note that there are several other low-growing, small-leaved species which can cause confusion. The leaves of C. horizontalis are small (to 9mm), leathery and acute at the apex.

Hjelmqvist’s Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster hjelmqvistii)

For the past few years, a small cotoneaster growing as a bird-sown specimen in a hedge here in Heaton has been annoying me no end. It looked, at least at first, like C. horozontalis but appeared scruffier in habit and had larger leaves. Well, last weekend I finally plucked up the courage to take a look. I’m glad I did!

With slightly larger and clearly rounded, mucronate leaves, my specimen here in Heaton was undoubtedly C. hjelmqvistii instead. A species known from only one other site in Newcastle but likely flying under the radar owing to its similarity to the former species.

Small-leaved Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster microphyllus)

C. microphyllus is another species I encountered for the first time in 2022. Anecdotally, it seems to be one of the more numerous small-leaved cotoneasters locally. So far, I have observed it growing in stonework and in rough grassland on the banks of the Tyne.

Another species commonly planted in amenity schemes, this is a mound-forming shrub that grows to around 1m. It is evergreen with particularly small leaves that are both dark green and shiny above, and grey-green below. The undersides are also hairy, at least initially.

Cotoneaster x suecicus (Cotoneaster conspicuus x dammeri)

And so we come to our latest urban find. Cotoneaster x suecicus, including its cultivar ‘Coral Beauty’ are extremely popular plants in cultivation. It is perhaps little wonder then that it has escaped to colonise a small patch of stonework beside the Ouseburn in Newcastle. Even if it hasn’t been recorded locally before now, there will no doubt be more of it out there.

This is another species with small, evergreen leaves which are noticeably smaller than its parent, C. dammeri. Its leaves are shiny with clearly visible veins which are scarcely impressed. The plant shown below also demonstrated the shrubby, arching habit which helps set it apart from other similar cotoneasters.

Cotoneasters likely to be found

With over 70 cotoneaster species recorded wild in the UK, the chances are that there are far more out there for me to find in Newcastle. A few of these have been recorded locally in the past and others have been spotted elsewhere in the North East. They may or may not turn up but now that I’ve gone down this particular rabbit hole, the hunt will continue.

  • Bullate Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster rehderi)
  • Diel’s Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster dielianus)
  • Spreading Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster diverticarius)
  • Bois’s Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster boisanus)
  • Bearberry Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster dammeri)
  • Tibetan Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster conspicuus)

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