Berberis ( /ˈbɜrbərɪs/ Bér-be-ris), the barberries, is a genus of about 450-500 species of deciduous and evergreen shrubs from 1-5 m tall with thorny shoots, native to the temperate and subtropical regions of Europe, Asia, Africa, North America and South America. They are closely related to the genus Mahonia, which is included within Berberis by some botanists. Species diversity is greatest in South America, Africa and Asia; Europe has a few species, and North America only two.
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 (like a bar, hence ‘barberry’), but are spherical in other species.
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.
Photo by Solmaz Hafezi
CultivationSeveral species of Berberis are popular garden shrubs, grown for such features as ornamental leaves, yellow flowers, or red or blue-black berries. 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.
Culinary usesThe berries are edible, and rich in vitamin C, with a very sharp flavour. The thorny shrubs make harvesting them difficult. Berries are often used in Middle Eastern and European rice pilaf recipes. They are an important food for many small birds, which disperse the seeds in their droppings.
A widely available Ukrainian, Russian, Estonian and Lithuanian candy called Барбарис (Barbaris) is made using extract from the berries, which are commonly pictured on the candy wrappers. Confiture d’épinette was a traditional sweet of Rouen.
CalafateBerberis microphylla or the similar Berberis heterophylla (both known as Calafate), and Berberis 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.
ZereshkZereshk (زرشک) is the Persian name for the dried fruit of Berberis vulgaris, which are widely cultivated in Iran. Iran is the largest producer of zereshk and saffron in the world. Zereshk and saffron are produced on the same land and the harvest is at the same time.
Berberis vulgaris Photo by Solmaz Hafezi
The South Khorasan province in Iran is the main area of zereshk and saffron production in the world. Barberry cultivation in Iran is concentrated in the South Khorasan province, especially around Birjand and Qaen. About 85% of production is in Qaen and about 15% in Birjand. According to evidence the cultivation of seedless barberry in South Khorasan goes back to two hundred years ago.
A garden of zereshk is called zereshk-estan.
Zereshk is widely used in cooking, imparting a tart flavor to chicken dishes. It is usually cooked with rice, called zereshk poloRecipe, and provides a nice meal with chicken. Zereshk jamphoto, zereshk juicephoto, and zereshk fruit rolls are also produced in Iran.
In colloquial Persian, zereshk is used as a term for showing dissent or disagreement, similar to the usage of “blowing a raspberry” in English. Although not a vulgar term in that context, it is not used in polite speech.
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