Berries and barbs in winter…


Barberry in snow copyright 2011 Pamela Breitberg

The deciduous (loses its leaves in the winter) Barberry Bush (Berberis) holds childhood memories for me. Hence it was one of several plants on my “must have” list when purchasing our first home 25 years ago. Reasons for my preference of this bush have changed from the berries being fun, harmless weapons when a child to my grown-up appreciation of its brilliant red leaves and berries. 

I feel stewardly knowing that my enjoyment of the berries is shared with the local wildlife. Research shows that the berries are edible by us, though I’ve never indulged. They are favored by birds but I have never seen the berries disappear entirely during the barren winter months. The coneflower, aster, and Black-eyed Susan seeds are favorites for birds waiting their turn at our ever-stocked bird feeder.  Barberries are one of the few plants in our garden which are not favored by the neighboring forest deer; their favorite dining choice during winter months is any of our Yew.

Barberrie bushes make a colorful change of pace in my perennial garden at times of lull between each season’s varieties of blooms. The bright red berries are a cheery sight in the too often grey winter days. Maybe my love of snow is for the same reason, as shown in this image, it brightens up everything. The Barberries’ tiny pale yellow flowers in the spring are an ironic contrast to the long sharp barbs; one welcoming and the other strongly defensive. The leaves command attention as they range from reddish green to a purple during warmer months.

The berries captured my attention as a child. More like a soft nut, they are firm with a slight give when squeezed. They were fair game for childhood imaginations that were encouraged to be engaged during hours of outdoor play in the 1950s and 60s. My favorite use was aiming them at my sister (and best friend!); they could be flicked with my finger quite nicely. The only damage to the receiver was nerves, because it was so much fun for me to do repeatedly. I’m not proud of the pleasure I got from this behavior, but I suppose it was a relatively harmless break from being an otherwise good girl.

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