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Credit: Peter Symcox

And so it was with me when, some years ago, I set five excellent young Cotoneaster microphyllus on the western-facing slope of a grassy bank.

The idea was that they would happily sprawl down the bank, eventually covering it with their bright-green leaves and brilliant red berries. But nothing of the sort occurred; the wretched things just sat there for over a year, sulking almost audibly, and refused to put forth even the tiniest leaf or branch; the soil was good, the watering adequate, and the whole affair was a mystery. And then I transplanted them just behind the edge of a south-facing rock wall. Almost before my eyes all five plants reached over and down the wall, within the space of a year or so - reaching down to the steps below - a full one-and-a-half metres - and colonizing the lower slope of the almost vertical bank. What excellent covering they gave; the wall was a mass of white flowers mingled with bright-green, smallish leaves in the early summer, whilst in the fall, the whole thing was a mass of red berries. All of which goes to show that plants, as do humans - and animals - have a "mind" of their own.

I rather think that my experience was unusual, for in point of fact, all the cotoneaster family are easy to grow, demanding nothing more than well-drained, moist soil. As I mentioned, the C. microphyllus is an excellent specimen for covering a wall, very often so densely that the stones behind will be invisible, whilst C. horizontalis, with its herring-bone, frond-like branches is just the thing for clambering up and hiding a cliff-face. A really splendid specimen, shrub or tree-like, is C. frigidus 'Cornubia,' with its mass of red berries borne in trusses amongst the bright-green leaves; this excellent plant can easily attain a height of three metres with a spread of nearly 2.5 metres. C. microphyllus var. thymifolius has the smallest leaf of the family; interestingly, the shoots are first covered with soft hairs, which later become smooth and a brownish-red in colour.

The flowers and fruit are similar to C. microphyllus. If it is yellow berries that take your fancy, then C. 'Rothschildianus' is for you - this, the largest of the family, can grow to a height and spread of over 4.5 metres. Finally, in a very large family of well over 200 specimens, C. adpressus is a prostrate variety that is particularly suitable for the rock garden, clambering over your carefully sited outcroppings and berms. All these very attractive plants, which come from central Europe and the temperate regions of India and China, fare particularly well in our own moderate climate.