Name: Barberry, Berberis vulgaris L.
There are no members of the Berberidaceae family that are native to Britain, and B. vulgaris is the only species that counts as an archaeophyte (long established and well naturalised in the wild). However, there are at least nine other species of Berberis that can now be found in the wild, plus two members of the genus Mahonia (Stace 1997).
Chromosome No.: 2n = 28 (Stace 2010).
Photograph: A.J. Lockton
It is found very widely throughout Britain, excepting the Northern Isles and the Outer Hebrides, but is very rare in Ireland. Although it was once widely planted as a hedgerow shrub, many plants were eliminated in the 19th century and during the First World War to prevent contamination of wheat crops with the rust Puccinia graminis, which spends part of its life cycle on Barberry. The USDA has an informative web site. Strains of wheat now grown in Britain are immune to wheat rust, and there has not been an outbreak for decades. In the New Atlas (Pearman, Preston & Dines 2002) it is mapped as native throughout the British Isles, but that is not a widely held view. It is generally considered to be introduced throughout western Europe from its native range to the east; and it was also extensively grown in America by early colonists as it was a valuable medicinal plant.
Origin: most Floras do not consider this a native species, and it is best regarded as an archaeophyte.
Rarity: not rare in Britain.
Threat: with a Change Index of -0.61, it is indeed a threatened plant, although Cheffings & Farrell (2005) list it as Least Concern - possibly because they doubted its nativity.
Conservation: no county lists it as an axiophyte, so it is of no significance to nature conservation per se. But as a host of the Barberry Carpet Moth it could be of indirect conservation value.
Very little seems to be known about its ecology in the British Isles. It is not mentioned in the NVC books (Rodwell 1991-2000). T.D. Dines (in the New Atlas) describes it as growing in ‘hedgerows and coppices, and on banks, cliffs and waste ground.’ It is considered a lowland plant in Britain (to 395 m at Wanthwaite Crags (Dines op. cit.), but in Europe it grows on the highest mountains.
The Barberry Carpet Moth, Pareulype berberata, is a very rare species in Britain, known from just half a dozen sites in southern England. It is protected by law, so must not be collected or disturbed, but Butterfly Conservation is appealing for records of it, if there are any otherwise unknown populations. There are plans to plant out large numbers of Berberis vulgaris shrubs in the vicinity of known populations.
Photograph: I. Hughes
Anyone who knows a good-sized population of Berberis vulgaris might like to either report it or just have a look to see if they can spot a moth on it. You can report any such findings to Ian Hughes. The apparent lack of any described ecology for Berberis vulgaris does little to enhance its status as a native plant. Descriptions of its habitat and communities in any semi-natural situations would therefore be valuable. The distinction between the various European subspecies listed in Flora Europaea (Tutin et al. 1993) may be worthy of further investigation.