Berberis vulgaris L.

Common names

Common Barberry

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A deciduous shrub, usually seen from 6 to 10 ft high, but occasionally more than twice as high; producing a crowded mass of stems erect at the base, branching and spreading outwards at the top into a graceful, arching, or pendulous form; branches greyish, grooved. Leaves in tufts from the axils of three-parted spines; thin, dull green, oval or obovate, 1 to 2 in. long, margined with fine teeth. Flowers in pendulous racemes 2 to 3 in. long, yellow. Berries egg-shaped, up to 12 in. long, bright red.

One of the best known of our native shrubs, the common barberry is found wild also over a large part of Europe, N. Africa, and temperate Asia. It was introduced to N. America, probably by early settlers, and is now naturalised there, more common in many places than the real American barberry (B. canadensis). It is one of the most attractive of all hardy shrubs, beautiful in blossom in May; perhaps even more so later in the year, when laden with heavy masses of coral-like berries. The berries are too acid to be palatable, even to birds, but at one time they were considered a wholesome delicacy, candied or preserved in sugar. According to the old herbalists the slightly acid leaves were once used to season meat with, and as a salad. A decoction of the bark and yellow wood was formerly celebrated as a remedy for jaundice. It is now discarded from the Materia Medica, but in many country places much faith in its virtues still exists.

In gardens, the barberry is useful on account of its accommodating nature and hardy constitution. It may be useful to fill up out-of-the-way corners or other such places, where its vigorous nature will enable it to grow and thrive, and hold its own without attention. But it is beautiful enough to deserve a more prominent position. It was planted at Kew on the top of the ha-ha wall that divides the gardens from the Thames, and nothing could be more beautiful than these plants in October, when the branches, drooping over the wall, were laden with masses of scarlet berries. But little now remains of this planting. Even on a lawn the common barberry will make a fine 'specimen' bush; more beautiful often than many rarer things so employed. The 'Cluster-cups' found on this barberry in spring and summer are the early condition of wheat rust (Puccinia graminis).

Innumerable varieties or minor forms of this barberry exist. No good purpose would be served by attempting to describe or even name them; a single sowing of seeds will sometimes produce variations quite as important, both botanically and horticulturally, as many of those to which long names have been given. The following deserve mention:

cv. 'Asperma'. – This remarkable variety produces berries without seeds and it is, in consequence, more valuable for preserves, etc., than the fertile type. The famous sweetmeats of Rouen, confitures d'épine vinette, are made from the fruits of this variety. It was grown in Britain from the seventeenth into the nineteenth century as a soft-fruit, and as a decorative berrying shrub was given an Award of Merit as late as 1937. It is said to bear larger and more abundant fruits than the type; the seedless fruits, according to early writers, are only produced on old plants. The earliest published name for this clone is B. v. enuclea (Weston, in Flora Anglicana, 1775) but the one given above is better known and to be preferred.

Loudon also mentions a sweet-fruited form of the common barberry under the name var. dulcis, said to occur in Austria.

cv. 'Atropurpurea'. – Leaves deep purple; one of the handsomest of wholly purple shrubs. The name is not appropriate to seedling plants, which came in various shades of purple and reddish purple.

cv. 'Variegata'. – Leaves margined with yellow. Described by Nicholson in Garden, Vol. 35, 1889, p. 265. This is perhaps the same clone as 'Aureomarginata', a name published by Regel in 1869.

Forms of the common barberry with white or yellow fruits are known, but the black- and purple-fruited kinds mentioned in old literature probably belong not to B. vulgaris but to other species in which the berries are typically of that colour.

B. vulgaris is a parent of several garden hybrids, of which the following are the best known:

B. × laxiflora Schrad. – To this group belong some garden plants that combine in various ways the characters of B. vulgaris and B. chinensis and are probably hybrids between them. According to Dr Ahrendt, the cultivar 'Brilliant' is of this parentage; he considers that, as a berrying shrub, it surpasses the common barberry and might replace it in gardens.

B. × ottawensis Schneid. – A group of hybrids between B. vulgaris and B. thunbergii, inclining towards the former in their yellow stems and brightly coloured berries but nearer to the latter in leaf and the clustered or umbel-like inflorescence. The original plants were the result of a deliberate cross made at the Ottawa Experimental Station early in this century, but similar hybrids have occurred spontaneously in gardens. Several forms have been named, of which the best known is 'Superba', raised by the Dutch nursery firm of Ruys. It is a vigorous shrub with bronzy-red leaves, growing to 8 ft or so high; autumn colour crimson. Sometimes offered as “B. thunbergii atropurpurea superba”.

B. amurensis Rupr. B. vulgaris var. amurensis Reg. – This species, sometimes regarded as a geographical form of the common barberry, differs in the much larger leaves, which are often 312 to 4 in. long, and 112 to 2 in. wide, perhaps the largest of all true barberry leaves. They are thin in texture, as in B. vulgaris, but the toothing is proportionately closer and finer. Racemes 3 in. long, with flowers like those of vulgaris but rather larger, followed by large oblong berries. It has stouter stems than vulgaris, flowers rather earlier, and the petals are slightly notched. Native of Amurland.

B. regeliana Schneid. B. amurensis var japonica Reg. – Undersides of the leaves grey, but otherwise much like B. amurensis. It has been confused with B. sieboldii but is a taller shrub than that species, with more angled branches, and the fruit is distinct in being of a bright rosy carmine, covered with a bluish bloom, and of oblong or oval shape.

From the Supplement (Vol. V)

B. × laxiflora – For 'Brilliant', mentioned under this, see 'Georgei' below.

† B. 'Georgei'. – This was described by Ahrendt in 1942 under the botanical name B. georgii, (so spelt by him) from a plant in the Sunningdale Nurseries, grown as 'B. hakeodata', which had been bought at the winding-up sale of Veitch's Coombe Wood nursery (1913-5). The name B. georgii does not appear in his monograph on Berberis and Mahonia (1961), but the berberis he there describes as 'Brilliant' is clearly the same.

It is probable that this berberis was one of several seedlings dispersed in the sale, which had been raised from a plant at Coombe Wood of B. regeliana (amurensis var. japonica). This was grown there as Berberis Hakodate, the second word being not a specific epithet but an indication of its provenance from Hakodate in the northern island of Japan. The seedlings were, however, in all probability wholly or partly hybrid.

The plant in the Hillier Arboretum, grown as B. georgii, does not agree precisely with the one described by Ahrendt, but it does have in common with it its brilliant display of oblong fruits of a vivid red. It is very near to B. regeliana.

B. × ottawensis – It should have been added that purple-leaved seedlings were also raised from the original crosses between B. vulgaris and B. thunbergii. These have botanical status as B. × ottawensis f. purpurea (Schneid.) Rehd. The corresponding cultivar-name 'Purpurea' is not clonal, but of general application to such plants. It is not an earlier name for the clone 'Superba', raised later in Holland.



Other species in the genus