Friday, 14 December 2012

Pernettya harem, the acid truth.

Plant of the week

Pernettya mucronata, the ‘prickly heath’ is not very prickly, nor is it a heath! For that matter it’s not the genus Pernettya any more, they have changed the name to Gaultheria mucronata! I fell in love with pernettya when I worked at the Lancashire College of Agriculture. It thrived there on a heavy, clay-textured, poorly drained, acid soil. And Lancashire does get very heavy rain! The plant is a completely hardy evergreen suckering shrub. It’s magnificent pink, white or red berries last for six months.

Most plants have an achilles heel. This one has two! It must have an acid soil and it needs a male! Bolton Percy has a slightly calcareous soil pH7+ and for my 25 years there, pernettya would not grow. Now, at Boundary Cottage, where the sandy-textured soil is pH 6.5, it prospers.
Pernettyas are one of those plants described as dioecious. Like holly, they are male or female. You need to plant a horticulturally boring male to pollinate the female plants to achieve berries. Pollination takes place across several meters, so there is scope for planting plenty of females for just one male! I planted three females with red, pink and white berries. With their spreading habit and with light pruning in spring, they form fine clumps and merge well within an ericaceous border. The male tends to be rather vigorous so I prune it hard after pollination and, to keep it small, occasionally yank out suckering shoots.

Even the ‘boring male’ in the foreground looks quite nice on a frosty morning 

You might have to shop around to find a male, only good garden centers sell them. I am told that without a male you sometimes do still get a thin crop of berries. 
It is curious that the berries are not taken by the birds.The label will probably say they are poisonous, but this is in doubt. In researching this point I found this informative web-site.

Frosty december morning
Previous plant of the week posts


Opuntia engelmannii

Salvia guaranitica

Clematis integrifolia

Dicentra macrocapnos

Aster amellus


  1. I didn't know it had changed its name. It is annoying that garden centres show labels of plants loaded with berries and never then sell what you need to achieve them!

    1. Nor did I know of the name change when I started writing the post. I think I got the info. from the site I have linked to on the post. I shall continue calling it pernettya !

  2. I have often admired this shrub but never knew its name. I thought it was a type of snow berry or cottoneaster so no wonder I never tracked it down. Will it propogate from cuttings or berries?.......Can you guess my next question....?

    1. ............can I have a piece? Yes you can! As a fellow blogger who lives just a few miles away it will be easy. It propagates by dividing out a sucker. Will one of each plus a male be ok?
      Incidentally when I was researching this post on the net I found a wonderful specimen growing in the wild on Orkney. It was about 12ft high,miles from anywhere and had clearly come from a seed carried by a bird. Lovely white berries and no male in sight!

  3. I was wondering how tall it grows but see from your comment that its 12ft. It looks a fabulous plant, one (or two if I'm to get a male) that I may need to look out for.

  4. You will need to be patient for it to get 12ft high as it was in the wild! (sorry about the pun). I would imagine the one I saw on the net was pretty old. Mine is actually about 2ft high and I tend to keep it that way with secateurs or clippers. I have never seen it more than 3ft high 'in the flesh' .

  5. Saw this plant growing amongst a patch of rough heather,while picking brambles nearby.I have been trying to identify it ever since! Pleased to know what it is at last.Now I will check to see if there are male plants as well as female going together.

    1. My male seems a little more vigorous and has smaller leaves - but this might not be typical
      Sadly this Summer's drought has killed one of my plants - I am still hoping it will sprout from the ground


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