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Berberis darwinii shoot.jpg
Berberis darwinii shoot with flowers
Berberis thunb frt.jpg
Berberis thunbergii shoot with fruit
Scientific classification

About 450-500; see text

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Berberis darwinii shoot.jpg
Berberis darwinii shoot with flowers
Berberis thunb frt.jpg
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.

Some authors regard the compound-leaved species as a separate genus, Mahonia. Mahonia and Berberis sensu stricto are best regarded as one genus. There are no consistent differences between the two groups other than the compound leaves, and studies suggest that the simple-leaved group is very likely polyphyletic.[1][2][3][4]


Berberis species are used as food plants by the larvae of some Lepidoptera species, including the moths Barberry Carpet Moth (Pareulype berberata) , and Mottled Pug (Eupithecia exiguata).

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. In Russia they are sometimes used in jams (especially the mixed berry ones) and its extract is a common flavoring for the soft drinks and candies.

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.[11] 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.[12]

Other uses[edit]

Historically, yellow dye was extracted from the stem, root, and bark.[13]

Selected species[edit]

Europe & Asia, deciduous
  • Berberis aemulans
  • Berberis aetnensis
  • Berberis aggregata
  • Berberis agricola
  • Berberis amoena
  • Berberis amurensis
  • Berberis angulosa
  • Berberis anhweiensis
  • Berberis approximata
  • Berberis anhweiensis
  • Berberis atroviridiana
  • Berberis beaniana
  • Berberis capillaris
  • Berberis chinensis
  • Berberis circumserrata
  • Berberis cretica
  • Berberis dasystachya
  • Berberis diaphana
  • Berberis dictyoneura
  • Berberis dictyophylla
  • Berberis dielsiana
  • Berberis edgeworthiana
  • Berberis forrestii
  • Berberis francisci-ferdinandii
  • Berberis gilgiana
  • Berberis giraldii
  • Berberis graminea
  • Berberis gyalaica
  • Berberis heteropoda
  • Berberis hispanica
  • Berberis jamesiana
  • Berberis koreana
  • Berberis lycium
  • Berberis maderensis
  • 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   
North America, deciduous
North America, evergreen

South America, deciduous
  • Berberis cabrerae
  • Berberis chillanensis
  • Berberis montana
South America, evergreen



  1. ^ Flora of North America, vol 3
  2. ^ Loconte, H., & J. R. Estes. 1989. Phylogenetic systematics of Berberidaceae and Ranunculales (Magnoliidae). Systematic Botany 14:565-579.
  3. ^ Marroquín, Jorge S., & Joseph E. Laferrière. 1997. Transfer of specific and infraspecific taxa from Mahonia to Berberis. Journal of the Arizona-Nevada Academy of Science 30(1):53-55.
  4. ^ Laferrière, Joseph E. 1997. Transfer of specific and infraspecific taxa from Mahonia to Berberis. Bot. Zhurn. 82(9):96-99.
  5. ^ "RHS Plant Selector Berberis 'Georgei' AGM / RHS Gardening". Retrieved 2013-04-07. 
  6. ^ "RHS Plant Selector Berberis × lologensis 'Apricot Queen' AGM / RHS Gardening". Retrieved 2013-04-07. 
  7. ^ "RHS Plant Selector Berberis × media 'Red Jewel' AGM / RHS Gardening". Retrieved 2013-04-07. 
  8. ^ "RHS Plant Selector Berberis × ottawensis f. purpurea 'Superba' / RHS Gardening". Retrieved 2013-04-07. 
  9. ^ "RHS Plant Selector Berberis × stenophylla 'Corallina Compacta' AGM / RHS Gardening". Retrieved 2013-04-07. 
  10. ^ "RHS Plant Selector Berberis × stenophylla Lindl. AGM / RHS Gardening". Retrieved 2013-04-07. 
  11. ^ See e.g. "Barberry" @ Alternative Medicine @ University of Maryland Medical Center. See also Berberine at Wikipedia.
  12. ^ "Berberine Compared to Metformin in Women with PCOS - Natural Medicine Journal: The Official Journal of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians". Natural Medicine Journal. Retrieved 2013-04-07. 
  13. ^ Tomlinson, C., ed. (1866). Tomlinson's Cyclopaedia of Useful Arts. London: Virtue & Co.  Vol I, page 97.

External links[edit]

Platt, Karen "Gold Fever" descriptions of golden or yellow leaved Berberis