History of Barberries

History of Barberries
The European or common barberry (Berberis vulgaris) is a long lived plant. According to J.C. Loudon, an English author who wrote the “Encyclopaedia of Gardening” in 1848, this plant has been known to survive for several hundred years. The plants can still be found in hedges that were planted in medieval gardens with examples being gardens planted by Benedictine nuns.

The barberry was mentioned in “A New Herball,” published in 1551 by William Turner. He called this plant pipperidge. The Latin genus name was derived from Latin, which apparently refers to the prickles.

In his writings, Henry David Thoreau made numerous mentions to barberries. It isn’t always clear as to whether he was referring to the native barberry or the introduced ones. He notes that in some cases the fruits remained on the bushes into the winter.

One journal entry indicates Thoreau began picking the red berries on August 23rd. However, the main season usually started around October 1st. The dates that he gathered them did vary slightly from year to year, typically ranging from mid-September to early October.

In one instance, he gathered some that were partially ripe by September 12th. They were fully ripe on September 20th. He wrote that “October 1st or September 25th is the actual middle of the barberry season.”

Thoreau wrote about the striking beauty of the plants when they were laden with the ripe fruits. These plants bore such heavy fruit crops that the stems drooped under the weight of the fruits.

Thoreau gathered large quantities of the barberries. He also took his aunts on these expeditions that he referred to as “a-barberrying.” He reports they gathered three pecks of berries from just four to five bushes. From a single clump, he once got ½ to two bushels.

Lest one think that picking barberries is a painless task, Thoreau wrote how a pair of gloves would have been so useful in protecting his hands from the numerous prickles, which he found himself removing from his skin in the following days.

Thoreau also wrote that birds and cows spread the seeds around, which enabled the plants to spread.

The colonists referred to barberries as the “poor man’s currant.” The common or European barberry was one of the first fruits that English colonists planted in the colonies. Nurserymen and seed dealers promoted both the common barberry and the Japanese barberry plants with aggressive advertising during the 18th and 19th centuries.

The introduced species naturalized very readily. Later, the plants were banned once people realized that these served as a host of black stem rust, a serious disease of wheat and some other small grains. In some wheat growing areas, the plants were eradicated for that reason.

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