How To Grow And Care For Berberis

This is one of the big families of shrubs, containing both deciduous and evergreen species, the former grown mainly for their heavy crops of small scarlet or crimson berries, the latter for their yellow flowers and attractive foliage. Most are very spiny, which makes them suitable for use as outer protective hedges or screens, and most are also very hardy and easy to grow in almost any soil.

Specially recommended deciduous kinds are Buccaneer, 4 to 6 ft., red berries; thunbergii atropurpurea, 5 to 7 ft., beetroot-purple leaves, and if there is room for a really big bush, jamesiana, 8 to 10 ft., with arching, coral-red stems and berries which change from coral to crimson.

Fine evergreen kinds are darwinii, 8 to 10 ft., with small holly-like leaves and orange flowers in spririg, followed by grape-purple berries; stenophylla, 8 to 10 ft., with arching stems wreathed in spring in sweet-scented, yellow flowers, and verruculosa, which has much the effect of darwinii reduced to half its size. There are also dwarf forms of Berberis stenophylla, such as corallina, red buds opening to yellow flowers, and gracilis, yellow, which can be very useful in small gardens.

The dense growth of most barberries tends to kill the stems beneath and so dead wood needs to be cut out in winter, and at the same time unwanted or overgrown stems of deciduous kinds can be removed. Pruning of evergreen varieties is best done after flowering.

Berberis are trouble-free, easy shrubs, grown for their striking flowers and berries. They will succeed almost anywhere, and do not need the protection of a wall, but are often placed near one because they look so good there. B. aggregata, height 1.8m (6 ft), carries yellow flowers in July, followed by waxy red berries; the leaves turn colour in the autumn. B. bunfolia is evergreen. Yellow flowers in the spring are followed by blue, waxy berries. B. darwinii is one of the most splendid species, growing to 3m (loft), evergreen, with tiny holly-like leaves, masses of dark yellow or orange flowers followed by light blue berries. It makes a fine screen or hedge plant. Flowers in May.


Another good screen shrub is B. gagnepainii, evergreen, up to 1.8m (6 ft) in height, with an upright growth habit. Also May-flowering. B. x stenophylla has darker berries, and a more spreading habit. B. thunbergii has brilliant red autumn colours and the variety ‘Atropurpurea’ has purple leaves.

General care: Berberis are easy to look after, and are tolerant of poor soil conditions. Plant in March, and if using for screen or hedging set about 60 cm (2 ft) apart. B. aggregata needs a sunny site for good autumn leaf colour, but the rest will succeed anywhere. No pruning is needed, except for trimming of hedges.

Propagation: Berberis grow readily from seeds sown in spring in the open or from berries collected in autumn.

Pests and diseases: Normally trouble-free.

B. linearifolia, from Chile, is a moderately winter-hardy evergreen shrub, 1-3 m tall, with leaves 4-6 cm long, groups of 4-12 orangey-yellow flowers, 1.8 cm across, and black, oval fruits; “Orange King” is less winter-hardy, has leaves which are bluish-green on the underside, and larger, dark orange flowers and dark blue fruits; suitable for moist soil in full sunlight. B. x lologensis, a natural cross of B. linearifolia and B. darwinii, is a moderately winter-hardy, evergreen shrub, up to 3 m tall and wide. It has apricot-coloured flowers and black berries. B. x stenopbylla, a cross of B. empetrifolia and B. darwinii, is a winter-hardy, evergreen shrub, 2 m tall and almost 3 m wide, with elegant, arching branches, differently shaped leaves, clusters of 4-14 golden-yellow flowers and black fruits; “Crawley Gem” is 60 cm tall and flowers profusely with reddish-yellow clusters of flowers. B. thunbergii, from Japan, is a winter-hardy, deciduous, vigorously branching shrub, 1-1.5 m tall, usually with smooth-edged leaves, 3.5 cm long, and mostly single, pale yellow flowers, 0.6 cm across, and red fruits. It is suitable for hedges, even in infertile, dry soil in full sunlight; “Atropurpurea Nana” is a low, very broad, dwarf variety with beautifully coloured autumn foliage; “Aurea” is a low-growing shrub with yellow leaves (burns in full sunlight); “Rose Glow” has pink, variegated leaves.

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