Berberis darwinii was brought to the attention of Western science by none other than Charles Darwin in 1835. Since then, it has become a popular ornamental through most of the temperate world.
Berberis darwinii is an evergreen shrub growing to 3m (9 ft.). The species is native to the Patagonia region of southern Chile and Argentina. An article about Berberis darwinii written on behalf of Scotland’s St. Andrews Botanic Garden notes its dependable hardiness and flowering in the British climate (it “always looks well even after severe gales”). That article and the first link include some close-ups of the flowers and shots of full-sized plants for reference.
The flowers typically start in spring, but blooming can persist through the summer (today’s photo is from mid-autumn). The long-lasting flowers (and purple-black berries) combined with the shiny dark-green three-pointed leaves give this plant part of its ornamental appeal. Here at UBC Botanical Garden, our small shrubs also display the typical long-arching branches.
Known as Darwin’s barberry, it was one of many specimens collected by Darwin on the second voyage of the HMS Beagle. Captained by Robert FitzRoy, this journey circled the globe over the span of nearly five years–the trip of a lifetime for an eager naturalist or explorer! The lengthy exposure to the diversity of plants and animals helped Darwin to continue to develop his theory of evolution and the origin of species. I sometimes wonder if we were in a similar situation and scientific time, who among us would have been able to conceive such a groundbreaking scientific theory? Over 300 taxa across the diversity of living things have been named in honour Darwin.
Berberis consists of evergreen and deciduous shrubs native to most temperate and subtropical regions of the world, excluding Oceania. The genus supposedly deserves more recognition for its ornamental values, as proposed in the Berberis: A weed in need of love article in The Telegraph. The author noted, “you could call Berberis the world’s most successful weed”. Since members of the genus grow over nearly the entire planet from subtropics to the snowline, she may have a point. Unfortunately, whether they are beloved or not, weedy plants sometimes find themselves acting like, well, weeds.
Berberis darwinii has long been naturalized in Australia, a term used to indicate the presence of a non-native species that persists in some localized situations but isn’t necessarily aggressive. However, in New Zealand, it is one of many invasive species that pose a serious threat to native floral communities. Berberis darwinii is one of ~135 plant species listed in New Zealand’s National Pest Plant Accord (NPPA). Plants listed on the NPPA are strictly banned from being distributed, sold, or propagated in the country. Range expansion of Berberis darwinii in New Zealand has been attributed to the dispersal of seeds by birds after eating the berries–up to 450m away from source populations, according to a study examining the dispersal dynamics of Berberis darwinii. Since control measures at the seed source are not always possible for Berberis darwinii (e.g., private property), this study outlines management objectives for the high-light microsites where germination occurs most successfully, as a potential action to mitigate range expansion.