Sungari Redbead Cotoneaster

The 2017 Plant Select shrub introduction is a woody plant with a tongue-twister of a name, a long history of survival at the old Cheyenne Horticultural Station, and has a heart-warming story of two great local plantsmen who brought it out of obscurity into Colorado gardens.

         Cotoneaster racemiflora soongorica or Sungari Redbead Cotoneaster is a very tough and beautiful shrub, having survived over 40 years of neglect at the closed and unwatered Cheyenne High Plains Horticultural Research Station. It grows 6′-8′ high and wide with arching branches. The dark green leaves that are gray-white underneath, are attractive in themselves, and the flattened clusters of white, Hawthorn-like flowers are some of the showiest of all cotoneasters. They attract bees and other pollinators. Following the flowers are showy red fruits, a quarter of an inch or more in diameter. These berries are not messy and are popular with garden birds. They cluster along the thin branches, appearing as ropes of beads—hence the common name.

         Sungari Redbead Cotoneaster was found by the famous plant explorer, E. H.Wilson on a plant collecting expedition for the Arnold Arboretum in 1907, 1908, and 1910. It was found near the Sungari River in western China. Wilson considered it to be at the top of his many cotoneaster selections. It is one of, if not the hardiest cotoneaster, hardy to zone 3.

         Redbead Cotoneaster loves sun or part-sun, wind, dry or moderate moisture and clay, loam or sandy soil. In other words, this is not a fussy plant, and in addition, it is not liked by deer.

         This shrub was sent to the Cheyenne Station to be tested for suitability in harsh western conditions. It became the favorite cotoneaster of Gene Howard, who served as superintendent of the Station from 1961 until it was closed in 1974. In fact, it was one of Gene’s favorite shrubs.

         Scott Skogerboe, head propagator at Ft. Collins Wholesale nursery, developed a friendship with Gene Howard who showed Scott around the Station and pointed out many of his favorite plants. Scott took cuttings and seed and grew them, sold them through Ft. Collins Nursery, and shared some of them with the Plant Select Program. A few examples are: Blue Velvet Honeysuckle, Cheyenne Mock Orange and Comanche Gooseberry.

         A few years ago, Scott got a call from Gene’s wife. He was in the hospital and near death and was asking for Scott. When Scott came, Gene gave him his horticulture books and thanked Scott for introducing so many Cheyenne Station plants to the public and bringing them into use. Then he said, “But you missed a great plant that needs to get into the trade, Cotoneaster racemiflora soongorica. I know you have had trouble propagating it, but keep trying.” A few days later, Gene died.

         So Scott tried cuttings from the old survivor with no results. Then he tried seeds, but no germination. So he decided to keep the old seeds and hold them for another year. Out of many seeds, only 7 germinated. Scott grew these up and tried again to take cuttings from the fresh new wood. This time the cuttings worked. While Scott was building up stock, he shared a small plant with me. That plant is now 6′ by 6′, growing on a slope with little water. It has bloomed and fruited the last two years, and is looking strong and vigorous.

         Since then, Scott has built up quantities that have been shared, tested and now available through the Plant Select Program. Only one other source for Cotoneaster racemiflora soongorica was I able to find in North America, and that Wyoming nursery acknowledged the Cheyenne Station as its source.

         In a 1927 Bulletin of the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University, it was stated: “Combining the qualities of abundant blossom and wealth of brilliant fruits, Cotoneaster racemiflora soongorica and Cotoneaster hupehensis maybe accounted two of the most valuable shrubs that the Arboretum has introduced into gardens.” Because of the discriminating awareness, care and perseverence of Gene Howard and Scott Skogerboe, this great shrub has not been lost, but is now available for us to grow in our gardens. Go to PlantSelect.org for local nurseries likely to be carrying Sungari Redbead Cotoneaster.