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Berberis darwinii shoot with flowers
Berberis thunbergii shoot with fruit
Scientific classification

About 450-500; see text

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Berberis darwinii shoot with flowers
Berberis thunbergii shoot with fruit
Scientific classification

About 450-500; see text

Berberis (/ˈbɜrbərɪs/) is a genus of about 450-500 species of deciduous and evergreen shrubs from 1–5 m tall with thorny shoots, found throughout the temperate and subtropical regions of the world (apart from Australia). Species diversity is greatest in South America, Africa and Asia; Europe has a few species, and North America two. The most well-known Berberis species is the so-called European barberry, Berberis vulgaris, which is common in Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and central Asia.

The plant[edit]

The genus Berberis is characterised by dimorphic shoots, with long shoots which form the structure of the plant, and short shoots only 1–2 mm long. The leaves on long shoots are non-photosynthetic, developed into three-spined thorns 3–30 mm long; the bud in the axil of each thorn-leaf then develops a short shoot with several normal, photosynthetic leaves. These leaves are 1–10 cm long, simple, and either entire, or with spiny margins. Only on young seedlings do leaves develop on the long shoots, with the adult foliage style developing after the young plant is 1–2 years old.

Many deciduous species, such as Berberis thunbergii or B. vulgaris, are noted for their attractive pink or red autumn colour. In some evergreen species from China, such as B. candidula or B. verruculosa, the leaves are brilliant white beneath, a feature valued horticulturally. Some horticultural variants of B. thunbergii have dark red to violet foliage.

The flowers are produced singly or in racemes of up to 20 on a single flower-head. They are yellow or orange, 3–6 mm long, with six sepals and six petals in alternating whorls of three, the sepals usually coloured like the petals. The fruit is a small berry 5–15 mm long, ripening red or dark blue, often with a pink or violet waxy surface bloom; in some species, they may be either long and narrow, but are spherical in other species.

The genus Berberis is closely related to the genus Mahonia, which is included within Berberis by some botanists.


Berberis species are used as food plants by the larvae of some Lepidoptera species, including a moth, the Mottled Pug.

Berberis vulgaris (European barberry) and Berberis canadensis (American barberry) serve as alternate host species of the wheat rust fungus (Puccinia graminis), a grass-infecting rust fungus that is a serious fungal disease of wheat and related grains. For this reason, cultivation of B. vulgaris is prohibited in many areas, and imports to the United States are forbidden. The North American B. canadensis, native to Appalachia and the Midwest United States, was nearly eradicated for this reason, and is now rarely seen extant, with the most remaining occurrences in the Virginia mountains.

Some Berberis species have become invasive when planted outside of their native ranges, including B. glaucocarpa and B. darwinii in New Zealand (where it is now banned from sale and propagation), and green-leaved B. thunbergii in much of the eastern United States.


Several species of Berberis are popular garden shrubs, grown for such features as ornamental leaves, yellow flowers, or red or blue-black berries. Numerous cultivars and hybrids have been selected for garden use. Low-growing Berberis plants are also commonly planted as pedestrian barriers. Taller-growing species are 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.

Species in cultivation include:-

The following hybrid selections have gained the Royal Horticultural Society's Award of Garden Merit:-

Culinary uses[edit]

Berberis vulgaris grows in the wild in much of Europe and West Asia. It produces large crops of edible berries, rich in vitamin C, but with a sharp acid flavour. In Europe for many centuries the berries were used for culinary purposes in ways comparable to how citrus peel might be used. Today in Europe they are very infrequently used. The country in which they are used the most frequently today is Iran. In Iran the berries are common in rice pilafs and as a flavouring for poultry meat.

Berberis microphylla or the similar B. heterophylla (both known as Calafate), and B. darwinii (Michay) are two species found in Patagonia in Argentina and Chile. Their edible purple fruits are used for jams and infusions; anyone who tries a berry is said to be certain to return to Patagonia. The calafate and michay are symbols of Patagonia.

Traditional medicine[edit]

The dried fruit of Berberis vulgaris is used in herbal medicine.[7] The active ingredients are thought to be the isoquinolone alkaloids, especially berberine. For more info see berberine. A new study from the Natural Medicine Journal shows that it is superior to Metformin in treating poly-cystic ovarian syndrome.[8]

Other uses[edit]

Historically, yellow dye was extracted from the stem, root, and bark.[9]

Selected species[edit]

Europe & Asia, deciduous
  • Berberis aemulans
  • Berberis aetnensis
  • Berberis aggregata
  • Berberis amurensis
  • Berberis angulosa
  • Berberis aristata
  • Berberis beaniana
  • Berberis capillaris
  • Berberis chinensis
  • Berberis circumserrata
  • Berberis cretica
  • Berberis dasystachya
  • Berberis diaphana
  • Berberis dictyoneura
  • Berberis dictyophylla
  • Berberis dielsiana
  • Berberis edgeworthiana
  • Berberis floribunda
  • Berberis forrestii
  • Berberis francisci-ferdinandii
  • Berberis gilgiana
  • Berberis giraldii
  • Berberis graminea
  • Berberis gyalaica
  • Berberis heteropoda
  • Berberis hispanica
  • Berberis jamesiana
  • Berberis koreana
  • Berberis lycium
  • Berberis mitifolia
  • Berberis morrisonensis
  • Berberis mucrifolia
  • Berberis oblonga
  • Berberis parisepala
  • Berberis poiretii
  • Berberis prattii
  • Berberis sherriffii
  • Berberis sieboldii
  • Berberis sikkimensis
  • Berberis silva-taroucana
  • Berberis temolaica
  • Berberis thunbergii
  • Berberis vernae
  • Berberis virescens
  • Berberis virgetorum
  • Berberis vulgaris
  • Berberis wilsoniae
  • Berberis yunnanensis
  • Berberis zabeliana
Europe & Asia, evergreen   
  • Berberis asiatica
  • Berberis atrocarpa
  • Berberis bergmannii
  • Berberis calliantha
  • Berberis candidula
  • Berberis centiflora
  • Berberis chrysosphaera
  • Berberis concinna
  • Berberis coriaria
  • Berberis coxii
  • Berberis dumicola
  • Berberis gagnepainii
  • Berberis glaucocarpa
  • Berberis hookeri
  • Berberis hypokerina
  • Berberis insignis
  • Berberis julianae
  • Berberis kawakamii
  • Berberis lycioides
  • Berberis maderensis
  • Berberis manipuriana
  • Berberis panlanensis
  • Berberis potaninii
  • Berberis pruinosa
  • Berberis replicata
  • Berberis sargentiana
  • Berberis soulieana
  • Berberis sublevis
  • Berberis taliensis
  • Berberis tsangpoensis
  • Berberis umbellata
  • Berberis veitchii
  • Berberis verruculosa
North America, deciduous
South America, deciduous
  • Berberis cabrerae
  • Berberis chillanensis
  • Berberis montana
South America, evergreen



External links[edit]