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A deciduous, glabrous, spiny or unarmed shrub with arching, pendulous or prostrate branches. Leaves very variable in shape and size, even on the same plant, narrowly to broadly elliptic, lanceolate, ovate-lanceolate or rhomboid obtuse or acute at the apex, usually wedge-shaped at the base, 1 to 21⁄2 in. long (or shorter at the ends of the shoots), bright green or grey-green, short-stalked. Flowers axillary, mostly in pairs or threes at each joint, each on a slender stalk 1⁄4 to almost 1 in. long, borne from May to July. Calyx persistent in fruit, with five acute or obtuse lobes. Corolla purple, the tube funnel-shaped, about 1⁄2 in. long, the five spreading lobes shorter than, or almost as long as, the tube. Filaments of stamens bearded at the base. Berries scarlet or orange, oblong, ellipsoid or egg-shaped, 2⁄3 to 1 in. long.
A native of China, long known in gardens and now naturalised in many parts of the world, including Britain. The correct use of the name L. barbarum Linnaeus has long been uncertain and it has mainly been used for quite a different species (properly known as L. shawii Roem. & Schult.). Recently, however, a flower from the type-specimen at the Linnean Society was dissected and from this it was established that L. barbarum L. (1753) is the same species as L. halimifolium Mill. (1768) (Journ. Israel Bot., Vol. 12 (1964), pp. 114–123). Miller described his species from a plant raised from seeds sent to him about 1752 by Bernard de Jussieu, which had been collected in China, almost certainly by the Jesuit missionary d’lncarville, near Peking. It is possible that the type specimen of L. barbarum was of the same origin.
Miller also described in his Dictionary another lycium – L. chinense – ‘of which the seeds were brought to England a few years past and the plants were raised in several gardens, and by some were thought to be the Thea [the tea-plant]’. L. chinense has by most authorities been considered as a good species, differing from L. halimifolium in its more scandent habit, less spiny branches, greener and broader leaves and in the corolla-lobes being equal to or longer than the tube (against shorter than the tube in L. halimifolium). But an examination of the material in the Kew Herbarium made some years ago showed that the plants in Britain, Europe, and China variously named L. chinense and L. halimifolium are simply states of one variable species. And, for the reason explained above, the correct name for this species is L. barbarum.
This shrub is very common on the cliffs of south-coast towns like Eastbourne and Bournemouth. Few plants are better for seaside planting and when laden with its abundant, pendent, highly coloured fruits it is extremely ornamental. Birds appear to eat the fruits, as plants may frequently be seen growing on the tops of old walls and suchlike places. In villages between London and the south coast, plants may often be seen beautifully in fruit on cottage walls in August and September.
L. barbarum was at one time known erroneously in gardens as L. europaeum. The true L. europaeum L. (H. mediterraneum Dun.; L. salicifolium Mill.) is misleadingly named, being confined in Europe to the Mediterranean region. It differs from L. barbarum in having quite glabrous stamens (not bearded at the base), in the longer-tubed corolla with lobes much shorter than the tube, and its small narrow leaves.
Closely allied to L. barbarum is L. ruthenicum Murr., a species widely distributed in eastern Eurasia and Central Asia. It is a spiny upright shrub of greyish aspect with linear, slightly fleshy leaves; flowers usually borne singly in the axils, the corolla-lobes longer than half the tube. Berries pea-sized, black. Introduced 1804.