By Barbara Kirbach, Sonoma County Master Gardener
Berberis is a genus of ornamental, evergreen or deciduous shrubs that is said to include some 400 species, the majority of which come from the temperate zones of East Asia, the remaining from North and South America. Some botanists maintain that the North American species and in particular, the California species, should be classified as either a distinct genus or as Mahonias. This is due to the fact that their pinnate leaves and spineless branches differ markedly from true barberries. However, other leading botanists have recently ruled that the California species should remain in the genus Berberis.
However you classify them, an estimated thirteen species are California natives. They are evergreen and prized for their handsome foliage, panicles of fragrant yellow flowers, large, holly-like leaves with toothed margins and miniature grape-like berries. These species and their cultivars may be referred to as Mahonias to distinguish them from their spiny cousins in the genus, however we’ll stick with established convention and call them Berberis – at least for now! These hardy natives make great garden citizens, with evergreen leaves that alone make the plants garden-worthy. The flowers and berries are added attractions. Pay close attention to the sizes attained by mature plants; some are large shrubs, others more like ground covers.
Berberis repens: Creeping Barberry is considered one of the prettiest
Berberis ‘Golden Abundance’ The parents of this vigorous hybrid are said to be M..aquifolium x M.aquifolium var. repens. It grows upwards to 6 to 8-feet and broadens to 6 to 12- feet bearing sturdy branches covered with dense foliage of glossy green leaves with red midribs some 10-inches long. As its name connotes, this offspring produces an abundant crop of large golden flowers and bluish-purple berries.
Berberis nevinii: Nevin’s Barberry, A 6 to 12-feet tall, by 8 -feet wide shrub with rigid arching stems, is covered with pointed leaflets that open as a metallic grey and mature to a soft blue-green. Yellow-gold flowers bloom profusely in the spring, followed by an abundance of red-orange berries. This native barberry, which has adapted well to the Bay Area gardens, is actually fairly rare and is listed as an endangered species. Nevin’s Barberry is very similar to another California native, Berberis fremontii or Desert Barberry.