Sandy’s Garden

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Berberis - the natural alternative to barbed wire.

When I was a boy, not too long after Noah had berthed the ark high up on the slopes of Mount Ararat in Turkey as some eminent evangelical archaeologists claim, few landowners or property owners had any compunction about making crystal clear which land and buildings that were definitely off-limits. Stone walls commonly had a ridge of mortar along their tops, into which were set lumps of broken glass, often in the form of broken bottles. Wire fences, on the other hand, not infrequently featured one or more strands of barbed wire, usually … but not always … close to the top and often supported by concrete or metal fence posts whose upper reaches were at an angle to the vertical, creating an overhang to make the barbed wire defences even more insurmountable. We didn’t think much about it at the time, accepting the clear intention of the owners of these barricades that we were not meant to intrude on whatever feature was being protected. If we got too curious and tore clothing or skin, we knew we would get laldy at home and that sympathy would be non-existent.

For better or for worse, barbed wire and broken glass boundary markers now invite claims that they pose an unacceptable risk to ordinary members of the public going about their entirely lawful business, although I still harbour an old-fashioned belief that any injury to my person or to my attire is likely to be my own fault, for I cannot pretend that I do not understand the hazards of venturing too close to such perimeter barriers. But there is a natural alternative - Berberis. Its name is, in fact, the Arabic name for the plant, and I have always called it by that name. However, the genus is also known as the barberries or pepperidge bushes, and comprises more than 400 different varieties of both deciduous and evergreen shrubs which have thorny shoots. The genus is native to Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas, with by far the greater number of individual members of the family coming from Africa, Asia and South America, only a handful native to Europe and a mere couple native to North America. The entry under ‘Berberis’ in Wikipedia, the free internet encyclopaedia, includes this short paragraph. “Several (species) are popular garden shrubs, grown for their ornamental leaves, yellow flowers, and red or blue-black berries. They are also 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 vulnerable windows, and uses as hedges and other barriers.” And ‘amen to that’ say I, writing as one who has tried to prune Berberis bushes and know just how true the words ‘viciously spiny’ are!

The small berries are actually edible and are an important food source for small birds, which seem to find the thorns less daunting than we humans do, for harvesting even a small handful of the sharp-tasting fruit is a task fraught with danger. These small birds are the main way in which Berberis plants are spread, for their droppings contain the seeds ingested when they eat the berries. However, the gardener who tries to persuade seeds to grow would be better advised to visit his local garden centre, where Berberis thunbergii, the species named after the Swedish naturalist Carl Peter Thunberg, is almost certainly available. This species is deciduous, shedding much of its foliage in winter and may grow to something over 2 metres in height - say, 8 feet in old money. Like many plants that do well in central Scotland, Thunberg’s Barberry came originally from eastern Asia and Japan: but Japanese Barberry, as it is usually known by our North American cousins, is officially regarded as an ecological threat in the United States, where it is seen as thriving at the expense of native plants. I can, however, report that I have no evidence of the Berberis in my own garden having spread into nearby open land, nor any evidence that, despite being avoided by deer, it keeps cats away!

(Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society)