Wednesday Weed – Darwin’s Barberry (Berberis)

Berberis (Berberis darwinii)

Dear Readers, there are some garden shrubs that only come into their own on a sunny day, when the light illuminates their flowers as if they were little lanterns. I confess that I rarely gave Berberis a second look until last week, when it was positively glowing. This particular one, in Fortis Green, was laden down with flowers on a cold February day. Later in the year, it will produce small purple berries, and its evergreen foliage is attractive all year round.

The plant was indeed ‘discovered’ by Darwin in South America, during the voyage of The Beagle in 1835. It had been known by the indigenous people of Patagonia since prehistoric times, however: they used the berries as a valuable autumn food source. It was soon a popular garden plant, but in some places it has become something of a threat to indigenous ecosystems: in New Zealand, it is listed on the National Pest Plant Accord, where it joins a whole gang of ‘thugs’ such as pendulous sedge  and rhododendron.

One way to tackle an invasive plant is, of course, to eat it. The Wilderness blog recommends turning the berries into a jelly to eat with cold meat or cheese. The berries of Berberis vulgaris are what we buy as barberry in Middle Eastern delicatessens, and they have a startlingly sour flavour – if you’ve been cooking from the books of Yotam Ottolenghi you’ll find that they crop up all over the place.

The berries are also popular with birds, as seen in this painting by Jacques le Moynes de Morgues, a French artist who travelled to the New World in the sixteenth century and returned with exquisite pictures of the flora, fauna and people that he found there.

Linnet on a Spray of Barberries by Jacques le Moyne de Morgues (c. 1533 -1588) (Public Domain)

The plant is a member of the Berberidaceae family, which includes 18 genera and about 700 species, the most familiar of which are the mahonias. Many berberis are spiny, which makes them a popular choice, along with pyracantha, for municipal hedging. However, historically berberis was seen as a problematic choice by farmers: the plant can harbour a rust fungus that also infects wheat. The UK has a native berberis, Berberis vulgaris, which was a popular hedgerow plant until this link was discovered in the nineteenth century. The shrubs were grubbed up, taking away the sole foodplant of a native moth, the barberry carpet moth (Pareulype berberata). By the 1980’s the moths were reduced to a single site, and it seemed likely that they would become extinct. The story has a happy ending, however: captive populations of the moth were maintained, and, when rust-resistant wheat was developed and the shrubs were replanted, these were released into the wild again. The Barberry Highways Group consists of various organisations (including Dudley and Bristol Zoo, Butterfly Conservation and British Waterways) who are working together to restore the habitat of this vanishingly rare creature. Unfortunately, the caterpillars of this moth show little interest in the tough leaves of ‘our’ berberis , and are inextricably linked to the fortunes of Berberis vulgaris. Let’s hope that its population continues to grow. If you want to read more about the conservation effort involved in protecting this species, there is a paper here which makes for a most interesting read.

Photo One by By J.F. Gaffard - J.F. Gaffard, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=426579

Berberis vulgaris flowers (Photo One)

Photo Two by Jean.claude [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

An adult Barberry Carpet Moth (Pareulype berberata) (Photo Two)

Barberry carpet moth caterpillars (Public Domain)

Incidentally, another rare moth, the Scarce Tissue Moth (Hydria cervinalis) has taken a shine to Darwin’s Barberry, and is well worth watching out for.

Photo Three by By Olei - Self-published work by Olei, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=793545

Scarce Tissue moth (Hydria cervinalis) ( PhotoThree)

All berberis species contain a compound called Berberine, which is considered to have antibacterial properties, especially for the urinary system and for dysentary. The root is said to be useful as a tonic, and also provides a bright yellow dye, which has been used to colour leather and tint hair.

And a poem, by Rainer Maria Rilke no less. This is about the common barberry with its red berries, but still. I think that it is a kind of plea to live fully, not to ‘die before you die’. Let me know what you think, gentle readers.

Already ripening barberries grow red,

Already ripening barberries grow red,
the aging asters scarce breathe in their bed.
Who is not rich, with summer nearly done,
will never find a self that is his own.

Who is unable now to close his eyes,
certain that many visages within
wait slumbering until night shall begin
and in the darkness of his soul will rise,
is like an aged man whose strength is gone.

Nothing will touch him in the days to come,
and each event will cheat him and betray,
even you, my God. And you are like a stone,
that draws him to a lower depth each day.

— Rainer Maria Rilke, Poems from the Book of Hours

Photo Credits

Photo One by By J.F. Gaffard – J.F. Gaffard, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=426579

Photo Two by Jean.claude [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

Photo Three by By Olei – Self-published work by Olei, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=793545

7 thoughts on “Wednesday Weed – Darwin’s Barberry (Berberis)

  1. FEARN

    Our garden Berberris darwinii is nicknamed the razorwire plant. Any attempt to prune it is fraught with danger so it mostly gets left to its own devices. Henceforth I will be watching out for Hydria cervinalis.

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      I had the same problem with pyracantha – trying to prune it required a suit of armour! And of course brambles are no slouch on the skin-damage front….

      Reply
  2. Toffeeapple

    Related to Mahonia! No wonder I thought there might be a link there.
    And, aren’t those moths beautiful? I am so happy that they have been brought back from the brink.
    As for the poem, I am not entirely sure what to make of it, so am unable to comment on it. Sorry.

    Reply
  3. tonytomeo

    Although I have always known them as barberries, I had never seen the ‘berries’ until just this last year! While getting a picture of something completely different in a landscape, I happened to notice a common garden variety of barberry that had made quite an abundance of tiny bright red berries. They were tiny, and I would not want to pick them among all those thorns, but they were interesting to see.

    Reply
  4. Sarah Ann Bronkhorst

    The poem makes me shiver. Bad dreams, regrets, poor self-knowledge, insensitivity, loss of trust and hope … it’s grim, and my guess is that the ‘you’ is himself. A despairing self-portrait? But the berries are lovely!

    Reply

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