Name: Spring berberis, Darwin’s berberis.

Botanical name: Berberis darwinii, berberis is Latin for barberry and darwinii is botanical Latin for Darwin. Yes, the same Charles Darwin who developed the theory of evolution. On his famous voyage of discovery on HMS Beagle, Darwin went ashore several times to look at the biology of each land fall. On one of his trips ashore to Chile, he noted the brightly coloured, orange flowered, berberis which now bears his name. Berberis has its own family, the Berberidaceae.

Darwin’s remarkable work has underpinned much of modern biological science, and has widely informed the understanding of plant relationships in gardening too.

So it is fitting that his name be associated with a blazing bright shrub that will shine from so many gardens in the coming weeks.

This barberry is very distinctive. It has evergreen foliage – quite small in size, just 2cm long – and carrying a few sharp spines at the edges. The flowers are borne in generous bunches along the arching, slender twigs. The colour of the flowers is a hot orange-yellow, often with a touch of red on parts of the flower. The purple fruit is edible, but quite sharp to taste.

You cannot miss this shrub when in full flower. It might appear at first glance that the colour is too brash, but it still seems to go so well with the rush of spring greens, yellow, blue and purple that is on show at this time of year. It is a very cheery plant, especially when seen with lots of other spring flowers. It can grow a bit too large for a small garden, making an arching bush of over 2m tall. But it is easily managed by pruning after flowering. Just remove chunks of the branches that have finished flowering. If the bush has grown really too large, it can be cut back hard, even to ground level, after flowering and it will sprout again, though flowering will be interrupted for a few years. Light annual pruning will not interfere with its flowering.

Like all berberis, Darwin’s barberry likes well-drained soil that does not get water-logged in winter. It will grow well in any ordinary soil, once this requirement is met, and it is very easy to grow, which is why it is so widely planted in gardens. It is hardy except in the coldest winters.

Although it is tolerant of light shade, it will not flower as well in a shady spot and the bush tends to become quite drawn and straggly as it reaches for the light. It is sometimes seen used as a hedge and it can make a good evergreen and impenetrable barrier, but the flowering of hedges is patchy because of too-severe clipping, and flowering is not as good as more free-growing bushes. It is not unusual to find an occasional seedling growing close to the parent plant. Some flowers appear on bushes after a good bright summer.

Get them growing

Start off dahlias

Dahlias are great value for late flowers in vivid colours and they are easy to grow. The tubers are on sale in garden shops now. These are often a bit dried out when purchased and they should be given a day or so to plump up, lying in a shallow dish of water.

Then plant them in large pots or loosely lay them in a flat box or seed tray with some compost under them and more scattered on top. Moisten the compost, but do not make it too wet. Place the tubers in a warm place, greenhouse or sunny window sill indoors. Water sparingly but do not allow to dry out. Wait for growth of roots and the first signs of leaves, then water a little more.

After a few weeks, begin feeding with a liquid feed and pot up again if necessary and the plants are growing strongly.

The idea is to plant the plants outside in the middle of May, earlier in the south, later in the north and midlands. These plants need well prepared ground, well enriched with plenty of organic material, well rotted. Watch for snail damage in the early weeks and take precautions. These dahlias can often be left in the ground once well established and they will give value for years.

This week’s reminders


There has been growth of grass and it is time to give a cut if this has not been done by now. It was a very mild winter and grass grew from time to time in mild spells, but it was also very wet at times. Sow new lawn areas or patch worn areas with seeds.

Trees, shrubs and roses

Spring shrubs, such as forsythia, should be pruned as they go out of flower, but only if the bush is growing too big and there is not enough room for its growth. Pruning of roses should be complete by now. It is getting late for planting deciduous trees.


Watch for slug and snail damage these days. Severe damage can occur and many plants are attacked as they come through the soil and sometimes this is difficult to spot. Bedding plants should be grown on strongly to get good size.

Greenhouse and house plants

Feed and water well now to get good growth before mid-summer. Spray a grapevine for mildew with rose spray if it had the disease last year. Houseplants can be repotted now, if they are pot-bound and inclined to topple over. Sow tomato seeds.

Fruit, vegetables and herbs

Sow vegetable seeds if the ground is dry enough, especially of main crop vegetables such as carrots, broccoli and peas. Sow cabbage and cauliflower seeds for late summer and autumn. Sweet corn and runner beans can be sown from mid-April.

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