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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 1⁄2 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:
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.
B. vulgaris var. amurensis Reg
B. amurensis var japonica Reg