One of the most beautiful and exotic of the barberries, Darwin’s barberry is distinguished by pendulous clusters of golden orange flowers that bloom profusely in spring. It was discovered in South America in 1835 by Charles Darwin, during the voyage of the Beagle, one of many plants named in his honor. It is one of the very best ‘all round’ evergreen shrubs. It is native to the alpine regions of Chile, Argentina and Patagonia where it thrives in moist open woodlands. This shrub is one of the most popular, and holds the Royal Horticultural Society’s prestigious award of garden merit by the RHS. Its introduction to gardens was by William Lobb in 1849 and it was illustrated in Curtis’ Botanical Magazine in 1851. Later collections in 1925 came from Harold Comber, who trained at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh. The genus Berberis is from the Berberidaceae, to which also belongs Mahonia, Epimedium and several other herbaceous plants. This is a huge family with about 100 species of Mahonia, 44 species of Epimedium and over 500 species of Berberis.
Why does anyone plant ugly, boring barberries when they could plant this one? The distribution of Berberis is north hemisphere, and in South America to Patagonia in the very south; a very similar pattern to that of Ribes. Berberis was named by Linnaeus in 1753 for the European species B. vulgaris. This is one of only four species native to Europe – the other being B. cretensis, aetnensis and hispanica. Several are popular garden shrubs, grown for their ornamental leaves, yellow flowers, and red or blue-black berries. They are also valued for crime prevention; being very dense, viciously spiny shrubs, they make very effective barriers impenetrable to burglars. For this reason they are often planted below potentially vulnerable windows, and used as hedges and other barriers. The fruit are eating raw or cooked and used in preserves. An acid but very pleasant flavor, children seem particularly fond of the fruit. When fully ripe, the fruit loses most of its acidity and makes very pleasant eating. Unfortunately there is a lot of seed compared to the amount of flesh and this does detract somewhat from the pleasure of eating it. The fruit goes very well raw in muesli or cooked in porridge. There is evidence to show the fruits were eaten by the earliest human inhabitants of southwestern South America.
Darwin’s Barberry is an evergreen thorny shrub growing to 3-4 m tall, with dense branches from ground level. The leaves are small oval, 12-25 mm long and 5-12 mm broad, with a spiny margin; they are borne in clusters of 2-5 together, subtended by a three-branched spine 2-4 mm long. The flowers are orange, 4-5 mm long, produced in dense racemes 2-7 cm long in spring. The fruit is a small purple-black berry 4-7 mm diameter, ripening in summer. The dense thickets of stems growing from ground level make a substantial border shrub as well as an effective hedge, reinforced by its thorniness, which makes it useful for security. The flowers are carried in spring, and small purple-black berries in autumn. Darwin’s barberry is one of the few weeds in New Zealand that can actually establish and persist under a forest canopy. In addition to this, research by Kate McAlpine (DOC, Science and Research) has shown that Darwin’s barberry is able to produce copious amounts of viable seed which can be spread hundreds of metres by birds. All told, this makes Darwin’s barberry a serious threat to New Zealand’s indigenous biodiversity.
Paleo Fig and Barberry Lemon Bites
10 large dried figs, chopped
1/4 cup organic plump raisins
1/4 cup Barberries
1 cup almond meal
1/4 cup coconut oil
1/2 lemon, juice, and a little bit of grated peel
1 tbsp raw local honey
1/4 cup Coconut flakes
In your food processor, add chopped figs, raisins, barberries, and chop away until you get a nice paste. Transfer paste into a large mixing bowl and add almond meal, coconut oil, lemon juice and honey. Mix together very well with a spatula until you have a nice thick evenly distributed paste. Scoop out one teaspoon at a time and roll even little balls between your palms and then roll them in the coconut flakes. Set them to cool in your fridge for about 30 minutes and serve. Enjoy!