Foraging Darwin’s barberry. Learn how to confidently identify, and discover its food and medicine uses.
Darwins barberry is a great plant. Not only is it an easy plant for wild food and herbal medicine foragers to learn how to identify, it offers a number of different plant parts to use, providing numerous harvesting opportunities.
This plant originates from the temperate parts of southern Chili and southern Argentina. Here in the UK, we have one native species from the genus – the common or European barberry (Berberis vulgaris).
Darwin’s barberry is another of those plants that are found more easily when you are foraging in towns and cities than if looking in rural places. Although from my experience, any sizeable village will also likely be home to this useful and popular garden shrub.
This is a pretty foolproof plant for beginner foragers, with no lookalikes to confuse matters. It is evergreen, so provides constant chances to learn how to identify it. Within minutes you can be ready to confidently go foraging Darwin’s barberry.
What’s in a name?
The first part of the botanical name, Berberis, is the type name for a genus of around 400 shrubs. I can’t discover much about the origins of the name, adide from one disputed theory. This theory suggests that it comes from an old Arabic word ‘Ber-berys‘, which was an Arabic name for fruit from these thorny plants.
The specific part of the name, darwinii, is in honour of Charles Darwin. The great Victorian naturalist discovered it for western science on a trip to Patagonia, on board HMS Beagle in 1835. Hence our common name simply being ‘Darwin’s barberry’.
Just like in a wild flower field guide, I use occasional technical terms, all of which are covered in this glossary.
Leaves: Evergreen and glossy looking, they are alternately spaced, approximately 2 – 4 cm × 1 – 1.5 cm long.
The minature holly-looking leaves are obovate-shaped, or occasionally oblong, and each has 2 – 3 teeth per side which are tipped with 3 mm long thorns.
Petioles: None. This plant has sessile leaves.
Twigs: The new twigs are initially red- green coloured.
The older twigs and stems become densely brown-hairy.
Roots: This plant generally produces rhizome roots.
Stems: Left to grow naturally the plant produces numerous branched stems, eventually reaching more than 3 m high and 3 m wide. I would wager that when you are foraging Darwin’s barberry you will mostly find badly pruned specimens, or well-clipped hedges.
Bark: Underneath the brown outer bark, the cambium layers are yellow coloured. This is due to the medicinally valuable alkaloid berberine, also present in greater celandine, previously covered here.
Flowers: Small drooping clusters of orange-yellow flowers, on red stalks. These are terminal, and found arising from axils.
The flowers consist of numerous orange sepals in whorls of three. The six petals are in two whorls of three. Inside the flower there are yellow-orange stamens that surround a flat disc-topped stigma.
Flowering season: Dependent on your location, this plant usually begins flowering in late February / early March, through into May. While in mild climates like the South Hams in Devon, it regularly flowers before Christmas during mild winters.
Fruits: Small, spherical, blue-purple coloured berries. Approximately 8 – 10 mm diameter. They are ripe and ready by the end of June / beginning of July. The colour comes from yeasts, which easily rub off.
Habitats: Mostly found around urban development as amenity plantings, and as hedges.
You can occasionally find naturalised specimens. The plant is increasing in numbers here in Britain, with birds freely eating and sowing seeds. This map shows the extent of its distribution.
Parts used: Flowers, fruits, bark, roots.
Harvesting: The medicinal barks and roots are best harvested in October and November. Take the cut from as low down the branch as possible. Angle the cut so water will drip away from the plant.
Flowers can be pinched off easily and cleanly with fingers. Or use scissors. The berries come away easily when ripe. Laying a sheet down and gently shaking any larger, untamed specimens you find, will prove, er, fruitful! Discover more tips and tricks with my harvesting guide.
Food uses: The flowers are sour-tasting, similar to sorrel, but with some citrus tones in there. Toss into salads and use as garnish. They make a refreshing nibble while walking in towns on a hot spring day.
The berries are one of the sweeter-tasting fruits from this genus. Most others are quite tart due to high concentrations of vitamin C. They are ideal for snacking on walks, and are great processed into jams, jellies, pies, and as replacements for raisins in Welsh cakes. I have also made a fruity ketchup from them.
Medicinal uses: The medicinal barks and roots have long been used in their native regions.
The plant contains large amounts of berberine, chiefly found in its roots and inner bark. Chemists first isolated this strongly antibacterial substance in 1917. It is present in many other unrelated plants such as goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), from the buttercup family.
Berberine is very useful in treating a range of conditions. These include urinary tract infections, cystitis, type 2 Diabetes, and numerous digestive disorders. Recent research into berberine has shown it has neuro-protective abilities and could be useful in treating Alzheimer’s disease. A plant not to forget then!
Now I challenge you to take your foraging to the next level and discover how to identify plants in a day! My two part article covers what I feel are the most important 12 plant families for foragers here in Britain. Both Part one and part two will revolutionise your plant I/D skills!