Herbs & Plants

Berberis darwinii

Botanical Name: Berberis darwinii
Family: Berberidaceae
Kingdom: Plantae
Order: Ranunculales
Genus: Berberis
Species: B. darwinii

*Berberis costulata Gand.
*Berberis darwinii var. magellanica Ahrendt
*Berberis knightii (Lindl.) K.Koch
*Mahonia knightii Lindl.

Common Names:Darwin’s Barberry, Darwin’s berberis

Vernacular names: Michay, Calafate, and Quelung.

Habitat: Berberis darwinii is native to southern Chile and Argentina and naturalized elsewhere. It grows on the moist shady woodland in the Patagonian mountains. A species of disturbed forest habitats, it has now become a common roadside shrub.

Descriiption: Berberis darwinii is an evergreen thorny shrub. Growing to 3–4 m (9.8–13.1 ft) tall. It has dense branches from ground level. The leaves are small oval, 12–25 mm (0.47–0.98 in) long and 5–12 mm (0.20–0.47 in) broad, with a spiny margin; they are borne in clusters of 2–5 together, subtended by a three-branched spine 2–4 mm long. The flowers are orange, 4–5 mm long, produced in dense racemes 2–7 cm long in spring. The fruit is a small purple-black berry 4–7 mm diameter, ripening in summer.

Berberis darwinii was discovered in South America in 1835 by Charles Darwin during the voyage of the ‘Beagle’. It was one of many named in honour of Darwin. The berries of this species are known to have been consumed by prehistoric native peoples in the Patagonian region over millennia.


Berberis darwinii can tolerate considerable winter cold, with temperatures dropping as low as -15°c.
Prefers a warm moist loamy soil in full sun or light shade but it is by no means fastidious, succeeding in thin, dry and shallow soils. Grows well in heavy clay soils. Succeeds on chalky soils if other conditions are suitable but prefers an acid soil. Dislikes exposure to strong winds according to one report, whilst others say that it is a very wind hardy plant, tolerating maritime exposure. Does not flower well in exposed positions. Plants growing in a very exposed position on our trial grounds in Cornwall are flowering and fruiting well, they are rather slow growing but are looking very happy and healthy.
A good bee plant. Birds love this fruit and will happily eat it all before it is fully ripe. If you want to experience the fully ripe fruit then it might be necessary to find ways of keep the birds off the plants.
Hybridizes freely with other members of this genus.
Plants can be pruned back quite severely, they resprout well from the base.
This species is notably resistant to honey fungus.
Some Berberis species (especially Berberis vulgaris) harbour the black stem-rust fungus (Puccinia graminis Persoon). This is a major disease of wheat and barley crops and can spread from infected barberries to the grain crop. The sale or transport of susceptible or untested species of Berberis is illegal in the United States and Canada. This species has been shown to be resistant to infetion by the fungus.

Through Seed – best sown as soon as it is ripe in a cold frame, when it should germinate in late winter or early spring. Seed from over-ripe fruit will take longer to germinate, whilst stored seed may require cold stratification and should be sown in a cold frame as early in the year as possible. The seedlings are subject to damping off, so should be kept well ventilated. When the seedlings are large enough to handle, prick them out into individual pots and grow them on in a cold frame. If growth is sufficient, it can be possible to plant them out into their permanent positions in the autumn, but generally it is best to leave them in the cold frame for the winter and plant them out in late spring or early summer of the following year.

Edible Uses:
Fruit – raw or cooked and used in preserves. An acid but very pleasant flavour, children seem particularly fond of the fruit. When fully ripe, the fruit loses most of its acidity and makes very pleasant eating. Unfortunately there is a lot of seed compared to the amount of flesh and this does detract somewhat from the pleasure of eating it. The fruit goes very well raw in a muesli or cooked in a porridge. The bark blue berries are about 7 – 8mm long.

Medicinal Uses:
The root bark is tonic.

The alkaloid berberine, which is universally present in the roots and stems of Berberis species, has marked antibacterial effects. Since it is not appreciably absorbed by the body, it is used orally in the treatment of various enteric infections, especially bacterial dysentery.
It should not be used in combination with Glycyrrhiza species (Liquorice) because this nullifies the effects of the berberine.
Berberine has also shown antitumour activity.

Other Uses:
Plants are very amenable to trimming and can be used as a formal hedge. They also make a very good informal hedge, their long arching branches looking especially attractive when in flower or bearing fruit. The plants tolerate maritime exposure though they are slow growing. A yellow dye is obtained from the root and bark

Known Hazards:
All parts of the plant contain the alkaloid berberine – this is most concentrated in the roots, stems and inner bark, and least concentrated in the fruits. In small quantities berberine has a range of effective medicinal applications but, in excess, can cause vomiting, lowered blood pressure, reduced heart rate, lethargy, and other ill-effects.
The fruit of most, if not all, members of this genus are more or less edible and can be eaten in quantity since the levels of berberine in the fruit are very low.

Disclaimer : The information presented herein is intended for educational purposes only. Individual results may vary, and before using any supplement, it is always advisable to consult with your own health care provider.


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