Saturday, August 25, 2007

Berberis - Barberry

I spent most of my childhood in an old "white elephant" farmhouse up on a rise. There was a very thin front yard, with a drop down a six foot retaining wall into a fast, winding country road. Various beds and hedges held the top of the wall, from the Golden Chain Tree at one end, through the murderously thorned tangle of the multiflora roses, past the generous daylily bed, to the barberry hedge which finished the run to the huge slate steps. Across the steps was more barberry, deep purple with highlights of burgundy and red except one yellow green bush, like an albino in the row. Then the wall became only 2 feet tall and the hedge gave way to a pachysandra bed and the one hundred foot "wall garden," with masses of creeping phlox cascading to the ground below, perforated with daffodils and tulips, the peonie bushes, and several large hydrangeas for visual anchors.

As children we lived in fear of the barberry hedges, bristling with half inch needle thin thorns. The hedge and wall were at the bottom of the best steep hill, and our terror was to loose control of our sleds and fly face first into the thorny mass. In summer we rode red wagons down the hill (Calvin and Hobbes style) and the turn at the bottom was an adrenalin rush because of the barberry.

In the spring the cedar waxwings would pass through, ravenous from their migration, and they would strip the hedges clean of the bright berries, which covered the burgundy bushes like fat red grains of rice. Later in the season we would pick up fallen azalea blossoms and stick them on the thorns, to make it seem the hedge was in bloom. We would call Mom to the front porch, to see the strange sight.

Here in North Carolina I encounter barberry bushes in the woods, in all sorts of unlikely spots. I suppose they have been carried there in the gullets of birds. They seem right at home with neighbors of privet and silver berry, all gradually choking the woodlands with impenetrable bristles. Escapees, I call them. Illegal aliens. Like so many of our so called "wild" things (flora and fauna), they were brought here by accident or by gardeners and have since become part of the natural landscape. Dandelion, mullein, privet, ajuga, various willows, starlings, Japanese beetles, European hornets, nutria, bamboo, earwigs, kudzu. Some I could do without, others I would sorely miss. Would I miss barberry? It's hard to say...
Berberis thunbergii - photo from the Flickr account of sarcozona.
Bombycilla cedrorum - photo from the Flickr account of BOBXNC, the bush they are on is a pyrocatha - another thorny, red berry producer.

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