May 2005

Berberis darwinii




Text by Bob Mitchell

     The genus Berberis is from the Berberidaceae, to which also belongs Mahonia, Epimedium and several other herbaceous plants. This is a huge family with about 100 species of Mahonia, 44 species of Epimedium and over 500 species of Berberis. The distribution of Berberis is north hemisphere, and in South America to Patagonia in the very south; a very similar pattern to that of Ribes. One of the most garden worthy of the southerly species is Berberis empetrifolia, an evergreen species which grows to a height of about 1'.

     The Garden has a significant collection of Berberis spread about the shrub borders. These were obtained in 1961 by John H. Burnett when he was Professor of Botany in St Andrews, for student projects. The collection came from Ahrendt, who wrote the monograph on Mahonia and Berberis in 1961.

     Berberis are mostly spiny, deciduous or evergreen shrubs varying in height from 1' (30cm) to 9 to 12' (3 to 4m). They flower in spring and early summer. Economically they produce a dye; are useful as a source of honey; and have been used medicinally. Many are good garden plants and well worth a place, despite the spines, in the garden. Adversely some species act as a secondary host to some rust fungi which attack cereals.
     Berberis was named by Linnaeus in 1753 for the European species B. vulgaris. This is one of only four species native to Europe - the other being B. cretensis, aetnensis and hispanica. All are deciduous shrubs.
     Berberis darwinii is one of about 14 species from Chile and Argentina. It was named by William Hooker having been first collected by Charles Darwin in 1835 when he was naturalist on the Beagle, with Captain Fitzroy. Its introduction to gardens was by William Lobb in 1849 and it was illustrated in Curtis' Botanical Magazine in 1851. Later collections in 1925 came from Harold Comber, who trained at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh.
     Berberis darwinii is an evergreen, spiny shrub to about 6' (2m) with dark green, shiny, three-pointed leaves. The drooping flowers are bright orange and long lasting and this plant has been acclaimed as one of the best spring flowering shrubs. The flowers are followed by purple/black showy berries, beloved of blackbirds, which help to spread the plants around. Certainly it is very hardy, will never fail to flower, and always looks well even after severe gales. For this reason it was awarded a First Class Certificate in 1967 and an Award of Garden Merit in 1984.

     There are a number of cultivars in cultivation - 'Compacta' being the only one currently offered in the R.H.S. Plant Finder 2004/05.
  Most Berberis grow in a wide range of soils which are freely draining. With Berberis darwinii little pruning is nesessary. Straggly branches can be removed, otherwise best left alone.
  This species is readily raised from seed. Plants are raised more quickly from cuttings taken in July from ripened, current years growth .
  Berberis darwinii is growing adjacent to the Peace Stone close to the entrance gate, and in the Chile bed.