Plant Profiles: Berberis
Drawing by Rene Eisenbart
Upright and arching evergreens with early spring flowers, 4-6 feet
Soil and sun; doesn't get much easier
Full sun for best flowering
I always figured that most gardens were bereft of hot-blooded, orange-blooming Berberis because when people heard the word "barberry," they thought only of thorns. I decided to test this theory on my unsuspecting partner with a mind-probing word-association game:
"Daffodil," I said. "Yellow," he answered. "Rose," I suggested. "Pink," he replied. "Rhododendron?" "Green," He chortled.
"Okay, how about barberry?"
Long pause. "Raincoat."
Looks like I figured wrong.
Evergreen barberries should only be so well known as the British trench coat. Instead, the berberis market has been flooded with the deciduous species from Japan, the bright-gold, rich-purple, and tricolored foliage forms that are grown by the gazillion coast to coast. What I'm pushing are the species from Chile, Tibet, and the Sichuan and Yunnan provinces of China, hardy to zero (the Japanese forms push -30 degrees F) and colorful as Crocosmia.
For a close-up of the flowers, let's look at Berberis darwinii. It's a Chilean species discovered by Darwin in 1835, while he was voyaging on the HMS Beagle (my kind of boat). Here we have thumbnail-size bells arranged like a miniature cluster of cherries, each golden-orange flower hanging from a slender stalk. Even before the flowers open, the early spring effect is fantastic, with flame-colored buds set against dark, chunky, hollylike leaves in a six-foot eruption of foliage.
Another arching mass of orange is the species B. linearifolia. As the name suggests, the plant is identifiable by its long, narrow leaves. The spring blossoms, each nearly an inch wide, are displayed prominently along upright five-foot stems. Though the straight species is plenty showy, you might be on the lookout for the hybrid 'Orange King'.
If orange sets your teeth on edge, evergreen barberries also bloom a delicious yellow, though one species has a peculiarly unappetizing name: B. gagnepainii. Monsieur Gagnepain's berberis blooms in small, light-yellow clusters, followed in fall by blue-blushed fruit. The foliage is quite distinctive, with wavy, undulating margins, giving this compact four-foot-by-three-foot shrub a striking texture year-round.
Also yellow-flowered is B. verruculosa, the warty barberry, with leathery, oval leaves and solitary, fat-budded blossoms smothering a nicely compact four-foot bush. Then there's B. replicata, a daintier beast with translucent burgundy new growth and narrow, wavy foliage like that of the "gag-me" barberry, made all the more effective by white undersides and daffodil-bright blooms.
Lastly, check out the vigorous and free-flowering hybrid, B. x stenophylla, which appears to have it all: very narrow, deep-green foliage with glaucous undersides; small but profuse, fragrant golden flowers; and an arching habit that works as well on a steep bank as it does in a hedge. Unfortunately, B. x stenophylla is too dense to hide under in case of sudden showers. For that kind of cover, you're better off with the hybrid, B. x raincoat.