Cotoneaster identification guide

What is Cotoneaster? Read through our Cotoneaster identification guide below. If you are still unsure, email us your photos and we will confirm whether it is Cotoneaster for FREE

Like so many invasive species, Cotoneaster was first introduced as an ornamental plant during Victorian times. In recent years, however, it has spread to areas such as limestone grasslands and has caused damage to many local ecosystems across Britain

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Close up on Cotoneaster
Photo of a vast plant of Montbretia Crocosmia x Crocosmiiflora
Close up on Cotoneaster

What is Cotoneaster?

Cotoneaster belongs to the rose family and is related to plants like the hawthorn. It comes in hundreds of different varieties but not all of them, in fact very few, are considered invasive here in the UK. The red berries are enjoyed by birds and attract bees, moths and plenty of other animal species, which is why the plant is a popular choice in gardens around Britain.

Cotoneaster has a strong initial association with southwestern China and was first brought to the UK in 1879 from East Asia. Like many plants we now see as invasive, it was first a popular ornamental plant and was ideal for hedges and borders.

Cotoneaster is relatively easy to maintain and requires little work except for occasional pruning.

The big problem with some species of Cotoneaster, is that they are quite prolific and therefore, with the help of birds who love the berries, they can spread quickly to the surrounding countryside. Even in usually barren locations like limestone hills, the plant can gain a foothold and take over the landscape.

What does Cotoneaster look like?

Cotoneaster plants vary subtly in appearance and there are many different varieties available in garden centres around the UK. They are characterised by a woody, shrub-like stem, short, thick leaves and small berries or flowers. Some, like Cranberry Cotoneaster are great for covering the ground of a border while others make the perfect wall covering.

Certain varieties are classed as shrubs and grow to less than a metre in height, whilst others are more tree-like, including the Cornubia Cotoneaster which can grow to a height of around 4.5 metres. Most Cotoneaster plants are not deep-rooted which is why they can thrive in shallow regions such as road verges or shallow greenspace outside corporate buildings.

Close up on Cotoneaster


Have you got a Cotoneaster problem?

Cotoneaster varieties

While there are as many as 300 different types of Cotoneaster, there are 5 specific species in the UK that are considered invasive, and which are overrunning and destroying natural habitats. It’s worth looking at these in more detail so that you can identify them and take appropriate action.

Wall Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster horizontalis)

Sometimes referred to as rock spray Cotoneaster, this is a deciduous shrub that tolerates most soils that have good drainage. If you plant it next to a wall, it will wrap around the stone or brickwork and form rough tiers. The wooden stems are dark brown and quite hard and knotty in places. The leaves are dark green and elliptical and tiny flowers form in the late spring, which then transforms into small red berries.

Close up on Cotoneaster 5

Entire-leaved Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster integrifolius)

An evergreen plant which holds its dark green, elliptical leaves and berries throughout the winter. The leaves are small and have hairs underneath, whilst the flowers are white with purple anthers turning into crimson berries during the late part of summer. It’s a low-growing shrub that can look fantastic in the garden all year-round, but it is also invasive.
Close up on cotoneaster 3

Himalayan Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster simonsii)

This large, upright shrub has the familiar small leaves and white flowers we associate with Cotoneasters that then transform into scarlet berries later in the year. The plant is quite hardy and is more often seen in the wild in the North and West of Britain. The berries are usually a little larger and plumper than other plants in the species. As with all Cotoneasters, berries are a big attraction to birds who eat them and then fly into the countryside, spreading the seeds.
Close up on Cotoneaster 2

Hollyberry Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster bullatus)

The Hollyberry Cotoneaster is much larger which makes it more distinctive. The green leaves are thick, over a centimetre in length and have deep, indented veins, making it an attractive option in gardens. It produces small pink flowers that develop into squarish berries that are a deep red colour. These too are larger than in other species.
Close up on Cotoneaster

Small-leaved Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster microphyllus)

The fifth and final species on the invasive plant list is the Small-leaved Cotoneaster which is another low-lying shrub that is used predominately for borders in domestic gardens. The leaves are green on top and grey/white underneath. The flowers bloom in groups and are pink in colour which then transforms into small crimson berries once pollinated. The stems also have protrusions that look like large thorns.
A close shot of Cotoneaster microphyllus

Why is Cotoneaster a problematic invasive species?

Cotoneasters are a popular garden choice because they are easy to grow and maintain and provide habitats for insects such as moths and butterflies who often attach to the branches as caterpillars. Tell a homeowner that their Cotoneaster is an invasive species and is destroying natural environments not far from them and they will probably be very surprised.

Cotoneaster is a recent addition to Schedule 9 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act and there are many thousands and thousands of gardens in Britain that have at least one plant trailing over their walls or protecting borders. They can grow in very shallow soil and withstand everything the elements can throw at them.

Despite some warnings of the ecological damage these plants may be having on local flora and fauna, they are still sold online and by garden centres around the UK, as they remain a popular choice for walls and borders.

According to North Wales Wildlife Trust, Cotoneaster is a particular problem in limestone grasslands where clusters of the plant have established quickly. These natural landscapes have been gradually transforming since the end of the 20th century and there are estimates that around 90% of the semi-natural grasslands have declined in that time.

Things are getting so urgent that some conservation organisations around the UK are now offering a plant swap scheme to encourage people to remove Cotoneaster from their gardens. Suitable bird-friendly alternatives include Holly, Blackthorn and Wild privet.

close up of Cotoneaster in the wild
Close up on Cotoneaster

Is Cotoneaster illegal?

In short, Cotoneaster is not illegal in the sense that you can still grow it in your garden and there is no lawful reason for you to be asked to remove it. Most conservationists would say it is better to remove the plant and replace it with something less invasive, however. There may well come a time when there will be legislation to remove the Cotoneaster plant from gardens, but this is still some way off.

Because varieties such as wall Cotoneaster are listed in Section 9 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act, you do have a responsibility to reduce the possibility of spread into the wild. That includes if you decide to dispose of cuttings or get rid of the plant entirely. You should be using a licenced garden waste service. If your council does this kind of collection, it’s important to contact them to dispose of the plant in the safest possible way.

Should I replace the Cotoneaster in my garden?

While there is no legal requirement to do so, it is better to remove the plant and replace it with something else. Fortunately, there are plenty of alternatives that are highly attractive to bees and other insects as well as birds. These include:

  • Dogwood
  • Bramble
  • Spindleberry
  • Berberis
  • Guelder rose
  • Cornelian cherry
  • Hawthorn

While it’s long been a staple in many gardens around Britain, it’s becoming clear that some species of Cotoneaster are more invasive and damaging than we first thought. Whether it’s growing in your garden at home or near your business, it may be time to think about protecting the local environment and having the plant removed professionally.

close up on Cotoneaster

Start fixing your invasive plant problem today by requesting a survey

Rest assured, where invasive species are identified at an early stage and tackled correctly, problems can usually be avoided. Our specialist consultants complete thorough surveys to identify the extent of the problem. Our plans aren’t one-size-fits-all; they’re customised to tackle the invasive species at your property effectively, taking account of all of your requirements. 

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