If you’ve got a problem area in your garden and you want an infusion of colour, the ideal plant is berberis or barberry. You will have to site them carefully however, because these prickly, dense shrubs can be brutal when you brush past them. They’ve developed a prickly strategy, to deter grazing animals in the wild, and there are 400 species found in northern temperate regions of Europe and Asia, Africa South America.
They’re recommended by police forces, across the UK, as being ideal deterrents for unwelcome visitors, whether it’s rabbits or burglars. As a result, these prickly shrubs get planted on garden boundaries. However, berberis offer more than a sharp barrier. Many produce clusters of bee-friendly, spring flowers in vivid shades of orange and yellow. These are often followed by palatable blue-black or red berries that are popular with blackbirds and song thrushes so, in all, they make good wildlife plants.
Where to plant berberis
This wide geographical range means that many can tolerate a variety of soil types, including clay and chalk, and many also tolerate pollution.
Most berberis are hardy and easy to grow, even in windy places, and most tend to be slow growing. Many stay very compact, so they are ideal for smaller gardens and containers.
Should a berberis get too large you can hard prune them in spring, but do watch out for the spines and prickles. They soon bounce back, although they may miss a flowering season.
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Most cultivated and readily available berberis are deciduous and lose their foliage in winter. Their dense winter silhouette makes an attractive, but still impenetrable, feature. In April flowers and new foliage appear and most deciduous berberis produce lots of flower, lots of berry and plenty of autumn colour as long as they’re given a bright position and reasonable drainage in winter.
Deciduous berberis for smaller gardens
Berberis thunbergia – the Japanese Barberry
This Japanese shrub is very compact and generally has small yellow flowers, brilliant autumn foliage and red berries. In warmer parts of the UK, it will hang on to its foliage late into the year. There’s lots of choice but, like many Asian plants, the Japanese barberry needs good soil that drains well in winter.
The warm-red foliage on this rounded, compact berberis is finely edged in yellow. Colour intensifies in autumn and the April flowers are a pallid-yellow. It will reach 1m (39in) after 10 years.
'Golden Ring' AGM
The rounded purple foliage is ringed in clear-yellow, creating a crisp contrast. This needs a bright position to shine and it will reach 1.5m (6ft) after 10 years. Perhaps the best foliage of all?
Purple foliage, liberally splashed in pink when young, so it’s a perfect foil with silver foliage because the tiny leaves and red stems provide upright form and contrast. Pale-yellow April flowers are followed by dark-red berries. Reaches 1m after 10 years.
A very slow growing compact berberis that produces domes of dark purple-red foliage. A sprinkling of pale-yellow flower appears in spring, although this is really grown for its foliage. 60-90cm (2 - 3 ft) after 10 years.
A columnar, plum-leaved berberis that adds a vertical accent to mixed planting. Tiny, soft-yellow flowers. It provides a good contrast used with green foliage. 120cm (4ft) after 10 years.
‘Rose Glow’ AGM
An arching shrub with purple foliage that gets splashed in pink and white marbling. Pale-yellow flowers emerge in April. 1.2m (4ft) after 10 years.
‘Rosy Rocket’ AGM
An upright habit, with small red leaves marbled with pink and white variegation. The pinks stems are also a feature, but the spring flowers are insignificant. Reaches 1.2m (4ft) after 10 years.
Combines good foliage and soft-yellow flowers. The vivid red foliage deepens in autumn, before the leaves fall, and then cream-yellow spring yellow flowers appear. Up to 1m (4ft) after 10 years.
A splash of lime-yellow foliage in spring, gradually tones down to lime-green. Mix this slow-growing compact berberis with pinks and purples, or blues. 0.5m/ 18in
'Orange Rocket' (PBR)
Wiry, upright stems clothed in small fiery-orange foliage that deepens to plum in autumn. Up to 1m (3ft) after 10 years.
'Lutin Rouge' (PBR)
A perfect container berberis, with neatly formed deep-red foliage that matures to burgundy-red as summer goes on. Suitable for the tiniest garden, because it will only reach eighteen inches (45cm) in height.
'Orange Sunrise' (PBR)
Rounded pinkish red leaves, neatly edged in cream-yellow, create a crisp contrast on this very neat but upright berberis. Insignificant flowers in spring. Reaches 1.2m (or 3 - 4 ft) after 10 years.
It’s worth noting that evergreen berberis plants shed their foliage throughout the year, so they are less suited to mixed planting. They are colourful in winter, but may they not be as hardy and weather-tolerant as deciduous berberis. On the plus side, the orange flowers tend to be eye-catching.
Berberis x stenophylla 'Corallina Compacta' AGM
Sold as a rock plant, suited to alpine screes, but also at home in the front of a border etc. This forms a small, dense shrub and the dark-green branches almost droop with masses of orange-yellow flowers in early summer. 60cm (2ft) at most.
B. x ‘Goldilocks’
Drooping racemes of golden-orange flowers in spring and occasionally midsummer, smother the lush, dark green leaves on this tall, showy berberis. 4m/ 13ft
Unusual and spectacular, because this slow-growing Chilean barberry doesn’t have thorns or spikes. The long drooping racemes of warm-yellow flowers hang down on long stalks. Needs a warm site, to avoid winter damage, but it should be hardy down to -10C. 4.5m (15ft) eventually.
Berberis suited to hedging
Berberis darwinii AGM Darwin’s Barberry
This very prickly evergreen is often used for hedging and it can be grown in a variety of locations, even close to the sea. The small leathery leaves are rather like a miniature holly and the showy, pendent clusters of orange flowers (held in mauve calices) are very attractive and bee-friendly. 3m or 10ft
For north-facing positions
B x stenophylla (Golden Barberry)
This fast-growing, very thorny Darwin hybrid (crossed with B. empetrifolia) is good in north-facing positions. Graceful arching branches are wreathed in yellow flowers in April, with a further minor flush occurring in autumn and then dark-blue fruits follow. A very adaptable hedging plant on clay or chalk and ideal for hedges up to 2m (7ft)
The best flowers
Berberis x lologensis ‘Apricot Queen’ AGM
This selected form of a natural hybrid, originally involving B. darwinii and B. trigona, was found in Argentina. The soft-orange flowers of ‘Apricot Queen’ appear throughout summer, framed by lush evergreen foliage, so dead heading is advised in order to encourage more. Blue-black berries follow. 4m (12ft)
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