Barberry makes an excellent jam, but its berries are hard to pick. As a hedge, it confronts prospective thieves with an attractive but formidable barrier.
Flowers on a barberry bush in Penwood State Park (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Most types of barberries belong to the genus Berberis. There are several different species, such as Berberis vulgaris, the European barberry; Berberis julianae, the wintergreen barberry; Berberis thunbergii, the Japanese barberry; Berberis buxifolia, the Magellan barberry; Berberis canadensis, the American barberry; and Berberis fendleri, the Colorado barberry.
There are hundreds of Berberis species in all. Barberries grow on every continent except Antarctica. In Australia, they are not native plants. According to Wikipedia, Berberis thunbergii is classified as an invasive species in the land of the kangaroos and koala bears.
Some barberries belong to the genus Mahonia. Mahonia aquifolium, the Oregon grape is the state flower of Oregon. According to Wikipedia, some botanists think that the genus Mahonia should be incorporated into the genus Berberis because of the similarity of the two genera.
Both Berberis and Mahonia belong to the family Berberidaceae. Other members of this family are Nandina domestica, heavenly bamboo; Podophyllum peltatum, American mandrake; Caulophyllum thalictroides, blue cohosh; and Epimedium grandiflorum, bishop’s hat.
As a general rule, barberries are spiny perennial shrubs. In some species, a single spine grows at each node on the branches. In other species, each spine has three prongs. The spines are actually modified leaves, and regular photosynthetic leaves grow in the axils of the spines.
Some species, such as Berberis darwinii, are evergreen; others, such as Berberis thunbergii, are deciduous. The leaves are generally small. In many species they are about an inch long. However, there are variations. For example, Berberis trifoliata has leaves with sharp points. They look like holly leaves. (Berberis trifoliata, commonly known as the desert barberry, is called Mahonia trifoliata by some botanists.)
Berberis vulgaris and many other species have yellow flowers. Other species have orange or yellowish-orange flowers.
The fruit is red or bluish-black color, depending on the species. The berries do not have many seeds, usually two or three.
Various species of barberry are often used in landscaping. When used as a hedge, some species confront prospective thieves with an attractive but formidable barrier.
The fruit of Berberis vulgaris and other species are rich in vitamin C and make an excellent jam. However, it is hard to pick the berries because of the spines.
The berries have astringent and antiseptic properties. When they are used for gargling, they provide relief for sore throats.
The roots and bark of some species have been used as a yellow dye.
A Negative Factor
Some barberry species indirectly hurt farmers. Berberis vulgaris serves as an alternate host to Puccinia graminis, a rust that infects wheat and other grains. Since this rust cannot complete its life cycle unless it infects a suitable barberry species, wheat farmers do not want these barberries growing anywhere near their fields.
American barberry and Colorado barberry also serve as alternate hosts for this rust, but other species, such as Berberis thunbergii, resist infection.
Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs; Claire Kowalchik and William Hylton, editors
“The Southern Living Garden Book”; Steve Bender, editor
Wikipedia: List of Invasive Species of Australia
Flora of North America: Berberis Linnaeus
Arizona State University: Berberis trifoliata