Witness Post: Firethorn
In the mid-1950’s and early 1960’s our family spent seven or so years in the newly constructed neighborhood of Devon, Pennsylvania, which were the suburbs “up the Main Line” from urban Philadelphia. Our father rode the Paoli local train into Philly proper on his daily commute to work. Our growing family (four children, when we moved in 1954 and six, when we left in 1961) was going to school, playing in the yard, and doing lots of kids’ stuff. Our mother, Eleanor Evans Hooper, was a great parent and a patient gardener. She had a real knack with kids and plants and she coaxed them into some really fine specimens. We loved our time in Pennsylvania.
Devon, PA, Spring 1955
Mom was careful not to plant the flowers too close to the back stairs, because my brothers, sisters and I were fond of rolling down the hill. Rolling was a daily hazard for Laurie and me. My head bumps are a direct result of too many dizzying trips down the hill. In the picture above (I am on the left, pulling cut grass clippings from my jacket) Laurie is on the right, Millie and Eleanor are in the middle (with their prized doll between them), and our over-indulged little brother, Ned, sits in Eleanor’s lap.
Eleanor pointed out that in the picture you can see that Mom believed in buying clothes with an eye to their “hand-me-down” potential. The jacket that Laurie was wearing had been Eleanor’s just a year or so before. This one would successfully make it to Ned and me before being sent to the Evans family for recycling.
Besides rolling down the hill a lot I also had great dreams. One of the most vivid was of flying. Those dreams were so fun and free. I recall that when my sisters went off to school, the new black and white TV was great daytime entertainment, particularly the Superman series. I was fascinated with George Reeves, as Superman. I imagined flying through the city and rescuing Lois Lane. My imagination took wing when I tied my blanket around my neck as a cape, ran down the inside basement stairs, and dove through the glass plate window. I had not opened the storm door in the basement. When I landed in the shattered glass on the back play area, I was astonished: what? not airborne? In a speeding bullet, I realized that Superman was a myth. How do you say, “Slow Learner?”
Flying in my daydreams, the reveries took me above the yard, high above house and looking down at the trees. I remember our taller trees pretty well, though I was just a scamp:Sweetgum in the yard, Crabapple trees on the side by the Reyock family, and Yew hedges in the back between the Killhour’s property and ours. Eleanor’s best friend was Sally Denk whose family lived directly across the street. The girls spent all their free time on the lovely Denk property, which the family named “Tree Different,” as a pun on the name of our township, Trediffryn. Their flower gardens and trees were the envy of the neighborhood.
Despite the neighbor envy, the Hooper kids all loved our yard. We especially loved to swing on the swings and use our imagination, seeing images in the clouds. We all liked riding on the back of the lawn mower, when Dad was cutting the grass. He tied a wagon to the chair and we were along for the ride. One of my vivid Devon memories is of the Spring air, which always smelled of freshly cut grass.In another memory we watched intently as the tent caterpillars devoured all of the leaves on the Crabapple and Mulberry trees. Dad took a flame to the caterpillar nests and burned them out, killing the pests but saving the trees.
Laurie remembers that “the big kids in the neighborhood (at least they seemed so at the time) used to play baseball in our back yard, because it was such a wide open space. And it was a great stretch of yard for catching summer lightening bugs.”
Millie’s recollections of the trees in the yard are particularly tender: “There was a large, climbable Mulberry tree in the front yard to the left of the door as you looked from the street. I loved it in summer because every ‘room’ in it had a ‘snack bar’ where you could feast on mulberries. We all went around with purple lips, fingers and feet in peak berry season. There were 2 pink Dogwoods in front that started out pathetically small, but did grow to a respectable size. There were bushes such as Azaleas, Rhododendrons, and Mountain Laurels flanking the house, and I think there was Andromeda too.”
“Out back,” Millie continues, “Mom’s flowers were to the left of the terrace, the Sweet Gum straight ahead, a Weeping Willow down the hill to the right by the swing set, and some Black Locust trees shading the playhouse and the doghouse. At the back of the year, to the left, was Mom’s vegetable garden — the one where the boys followed behind Mom, digging up everything she planted…There was a tall Boxwood hedge, or maybe one made of Yews, behind that, with some openings we could slip through to visit the Killhours. There was lots of room to run, roll, play ball, you name it. All in all, a pretty idyllic place!”
Eleanor asks the rest of us if we remember Mom’s attempts to grow corn. “Mom didn’t know that a successful farmer had to plant lots of corn seeds in order to get enough tassels for pollination. The corn she grew was so small (and tender when cooked) that Ned, with his baby teeth, at the whole ear, cob and all!” Eleanor also remembers that one fall Mom attempted to have a controlled burn in the vegetable garden: “Mom didn’t have adequate water on hand to keep the fire under control. We had to call the Fire Department before the hedge between our house and the Killhour’s was burned down completely!”
Eleanor’s favorite Devon birthday gift was a Lilac bush that Dad planted in the back yard to the right of Mom’s vegetable garden. “Each spring the lilac produced copious blossoms that were so wonderfully fragrant. Millie and I would cut the blossoms and keep them in vases in our room.”
Hooper house on Steeplechase Road in Devon, PA (photo Sally Denk Hoey)
One of the plants that got the most attention in the yard, besides the Crabapple, the fruit of which Mom made into jelly most years, were the Pyracantha bushes, also known by the name Firethorn. I did not know much about these plants growing up, but I learned quickly to respect them, or else suffer the consequences of my ignorance. When we were able to handle a tool, Dad often asked us to “trim” the edge of the property, particularly close to the house, with hand clippers. This is before the age of weed whackers. The area where these bushes grew was impossible to get to with the lawn mower, but it looked unkempt if the grass were left growing. So the Hooper children dutifully took turns with those blister inducing clippers to make it look tidy. One of the most-tricky places to trim was around the Pyracantha.
If you are not familiar with these prickly evergreens, they are a large shrub with fragrant white flowers in the spring, bright orange/red berries in the summer, and dark green leaves all year long. Dad planted the Pyracantha on the south facing wall, along the back stairs, which went from the basement to the back patio and also next to the back terrace. The southern exposure seemed the perfect places for this sun-loving plant to thrive. The trick was to “train it” to grow in the right direction.
From my memory, our Dad took many of the seven years we were in Devon to get the Pyracantha to grow straight up the wall. He literally threw all kinds of things against that wall to see what would help the bush to stick. He tried chicken wire (the berries were too heavy and it fell over); he tried manure on the wall (and it still did not stick); he tried “heavy pruning” (but it made the bush look pathetic). Finally it was not until the shrub was attached to a strong latticework fence that it seemed to grow up and not out from the wall. Laurie recalls that “the best method of attaching the Pyracantha bushes to the wall were little silver coin-like things with a clip of some sort that Dad hammered into the stucco siding and then attached the branches to the wall.” Eleanor recalls, “The flower garden that bordered a corner of the terrace, and could be seen from the living room, was filled with Mom’s favorite blossoms. Dad successfully grew a red climbing rose against the wall outside the family room, next to the stairs from the terrace. He used those silver coin like things with hooks, as Laurie mentioned, which he glued to the stucco to hold the branches.”
I like the name Pyracantha, because it sounds like pyromania, as in FIRE! Almost like Phoenix, up from the ashes arises this beautiful berried shrub. I did not imagine a “burning bush,” like the one Moses saw in the Old Testament, and I was not thinking of Euonymus, which is nicknamed “Burning Bush.” I was imagining the flaming red berries that hang so heavily on the branches in the summer.
Pyracantha is a member of the Rosaceae family,. It is native to Europe and thrives in a wide geographic area extending east from Southeastern Europe to Southeast Asia. They are prized for their serrated leaves, numerous thorns, and year-round appeal floral appeal.
The mature plants can grow to a height of 20 feet tall, but we were lucky to have ours “touch the sky.” I was not particularly tall as a boy, so when I saw that our Dad had to use a step ladder and extended arm clippers to trim the Pyracantha (which was about 8 feet) I thought it was gigantic. He also always wore gloves because he figured out it was better not to draw blood doing yard work
Different Pyracantha Species
Some of the most romantic and descriptive names for different species of the Pyracantha, make it sound even more remarkable across the hemispheres. There are species with the names of Mohave, Soleil d’Or (Golden Sun), Firelight, Golden Charmer, Navajo, Teton, Orange Glow, Rosy Mantle, Santa Cruz, Watereri, Lalandei, Golden Dome, and of course Firethron.
Pyracantha, interestingly enough, have proven to be a good privacy fence around houses. They are a multi-purpose security wall against intruders. If you have ever run into one, you would know what I mean. They are also a good shrub for wildlife: small birds build nests deep in the branches, bees love the summer flowers, and the berries make a good food source for the animals.
The scraggly Pyracantha bushes can be seen in the picture below, growing up against the wall next to the windows on the right hand side, behind the children. Dad had “trained” the Pyracantha bushes at least into a straight line by this point.
Hooper Children, Nancy has arrived
Devon, PA, Summer 1958
When we were growing up, we heard that the Pyracantha berries were poisonous, but that did not stop us from trying them. Laurie dared me to bite into them, and I did — they were wicked. They were so bitter on my tongue, that I spat them out and swore never to try them again, even on Ned. Apparently the berries, like Crabapples, soften and sweeten when boiled and caramelized and they can be canned effectively in jams and preserves. But my taste buds still sting from the bitter memory and I can only imagine it tasting palatable after adding a ton of sugar to the recipe.
Of course the berries were beautiful in flower arrangements and Mom often asked us to cut some so that she could put them in flower vases for the local garden club. These are fun memories of a beautiful shrub in our yard.
Devon, PA, Fall 1959
Crown of Thorns
Seasonally the Pyracantha berries fall off in late fall or early the winter, during which the shrub looks much more bedraggled. And it is in late winter that the thorns, not covered by as many leaves and no berries, are the most visible. Weeding around them is not for the fainthearted.
In our family we also called the shrub the Crown of Thorns bush, because it was as close as we could imagine a bush having thorns to be woven into a punishingly and painful headdress. I could imagine that Christ wore the Pyracantha thorns. I was not however foolish enough to cut a branch and try to weave it into a crown.
When we saw the piercing thorns of the actual desert plant called “Crown of Thorns,” we learned that the Pyracantha is a pussy cat and the Crown of Thorns is a panther. The thorns of the actual Crown of Thorns (above) are lethal and very dangerous to the ungloved gardener.
Lots of lessons can be learned from back yard gardens and I am still learning them today, one pierced glove at a time.