Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/The barberry


Sometimes nestling in the sweet centre of a sugary comfit—more often garlanding, with serried sprays of coralline ruddiness, some triumph of confectionery art, the barberry appears at our tables, usually, only in a very supplementary kind of manner; yet as it does “enter an appearance” there in due form, it cannot be denied some notice, especially as it further claims to be one of the fruits indigenous to our own country. It is thought by some to have come originally from the East, but no record remains of its having been introduced thence, and it is now at least found wild in most parts of Europe, and is also a native of America; while to endow it with a respectable classical antiquity, it has been assumed to be the fruit referred to by Pliny, when he describes “a kind of thorny bush, called appendix, having red berries hanging from the branches, which are called appendices.” Gerard informs us that in his time (1597) it was very common in England, and that near Colnbrook, especially, the hedges were nothing else but barberry bushes; but now, though still sometimes found wild, it is comparatively rare, though the stiff, sharp, triply-pointed spines, which liberally garnish the branches, fit it admirably for a protective enclosure, while, as regards appearance, it forms one of the very prettiest of hedges. Spring clothes it first with a foliage of oval serrated leaves, which being joined to the leaf-stalk by a distinct articulation, are reckoned as compound leaves reduced to a single leaflet; while the three spines which shoot out at their base are also considered as being the skeletons of undeveloped leaves, or, in the words of Bindley, “a curious state of leaf, in which the parenchyma is absorbed, and the ribs indurated.” By June the bush has garlanded itself with wreaths of blossoms, in form, size, and colour not unlike the common little yellow “everlasting” flower, but more light and delicate in make, and far more gracefully disposed, hanging in loosely-drooping clusters, while the centre of each flower displays six slender stamens surrounded by six petals and six sepals, but calyx and corolla scarcely distinguishable from each other—the whole of the blossom being tinted with one uniform hue of pale delicate yellow. By September another variation, and yet more pleasing one, has taken place; for the fruit then begins to ripen, and the bush appears in its fulness of glory—every spray hung with elegant pendant clusters of little oval berries, flushed with the most vivid scarlet. In flavour these are intensely yet agreeably sharp, owing to the presence of a powerful acid, which Scheele (according to Downing) found to be chiefly acetic, but which Royle asserted to be malic, and Lindley prouounces to be oxalic. Pickled in vinegar while green, they form an excellent substitute for capers; when ripe they supply a beautiful garnish, either while fresh or preserved in bunches; and their juice is beneficial to inflamed gums, or in affections of the tonsils, or, in the North of Europe, becomes a substitute for lemon-juice in flavouring punch, &c., while by evaporating it after fermentation tartar is procured. Preserved they make a pleasant conserve, which strengthens the stomach, creates appetite, and is useful to check diarrhœa; while even the leaves partake of the acid of the berries, and therefore were formerly, and still might be, used as salad; besides which, they are readily eaten by cattle, sheep, or goats. The bark and roots, too, yield a yellow dye, and possess also an astringent quality so powerful, that they are not only used medicinally, but are made available in Poland in the manufacture of leather—the skins being tanned and dyed yellow by one and the same process. It might well, therefore, seem strange that a plant with so many recommendations, both as regards use and beauty, should be so seldom met with in our gardens, and in many places have been almost extirpated from even our fields; but better reason can be shown for the disfavour into which the barberry has fallen than can be adduced in every case for the neglect of native plants—a great objection to its being planted very near houses being the very offensive odour of the flowers. Phillips mentions having had a monster barberry-bush in his garden, which towered twenty feet high, spreading its branches over a circumference of sixty feet, and which must therefore have presented a very beautiful appearance when decked with either flowers or fruit; but the smell of the blossoms, fragrant at first as that of cowslips, changed ere they faded into a putrid kind of scent, so exceedingly disagreeable that for about a fortnight no one could walk in the shrubbery anywhere near it. Still, for hedges in the open country it might have held its place, notwithstanding a temporary unpleasant odour, but that another and more serious objection has led the farmer to look on it as a foe to be carefully rooted out of his domain; for he has found that wherever the barberry grows near corn, there the corn becomes specially liable to be affected with disease. Duhamel treated this belief with scorn, as a mere vulgar prejudice; other scientific writers have followed in his wake; and Dr. Greville, in an elaborate work on Cryptogamia, proved, satisfactorily enough, that the mildew so often found on the barberry (and which, under the microscope, presents an extraordinarily beautiful appearance) is distinctly different from any of the fungi usually found on diseased corn; but nevertheless, practical agriculturists, both in this country and in America, still maintain the popular notion on the subject to be an incontrovertible fact. A most intelligent farmer assured the writer that on one occasion, when going over his fields with a friend, they were struck with the odd appearance of a semicircular patch of wheat being all blighted with “rust,” while the rest of the field was wholly unaffected by the disease. As it was at the edge of the field, the friend remarked that it would be as well to examine the hedge close by, when a barberry-bush, the only one in the neighbourhood, was discovered growing exactly opposite the centre of the diseased patch. It was grubbed up, and in succeeding years no more “rust” appeared in the field. Had science, instead of denying this singular influence of one plant upon another (testified to, as it is, by many witnesses), addressed itself more carefully to seeking out the cause of it, we should probably not be left now to guesses upon the subject; but as, in the present uncertainty, even a “guess at truth” may be of some interest, the following considerations are adduced.

The barberry is a sensitive plant, endowed apparently with something analogous to the nervous system of animals; for its blossoms offer a noted specimen of vegetable irritability, easily excited by the insertion of a pin—the stamens, if lightly touched at their base, springing forward and striking against the stigma, while the petals at the same time close over them. If the anthers be ripe, this movement causes them to discharge their pollen upon the stigma, and then, if touched again, no result is elicited; but if the blossom be immature, the various parts soon return to their former position, and another touch excites a similar commotion again, so that the experiment may be repeated several times upon the same flower. Nor is this all: for it has been further found that if poison be applied to the plant, should it be of a corrosive nature (such as arsenic), the filaments stiffen into a rigidity no longer capable of responding to the touch which was before so irritating; whereas if, on the contrary, a narcotic, such as opium, be administered, they equally lose the power of making an active spring, but droop in flaccid weakness, easily bent in any direction. As regards their ordinary condition, however, it would appear that some external force must be necessary in order to impel the stamens to discharge their office of fructifying the central organ; but as experimentalising botanists are not always at hand to tickle them into compliance, Nature has provided for their being commonly urged into fulfilling her behests, by making the flowers specially attractive to insects—it may be, even by that very odour so offensive to human nostrils,—and the busy tribes thus drawn to settle on them, in pushing their way among the irritable stamens, soon vex them into that violent rush towards the pistil which is requisite to induce its fructification. Further consequences ensue from this peculiar endowment: for just as “where the body is, there the eagles gather together,” so, and for like reason, where insects are, there little birds are sure to flock; and though the fruit is too acid to tempt them into making that an article of diet, singing birds, especially bull and goldfinches, are especially fond of resorting to the barberry-bush, to build their nests in its thorn-protected branches, and profit by the feast provided in its swarms of insect visitants. This of itself would suffice to make the plant unwelcome to those short-sighted cultivators who hold the feathered race in deadly hatred as devourers of their grain, hearing in their sweetest songs only the impudent triumph of successful plunderers; but this is a prejudice abandoned by the more enlightened, who recognise the destruction of many insects as a service outweighing the consumption of a few seeds. But, however the plant might have been forgiven for harbouring birds—now acknowledged to be harmless or even useful—it is less easy to pardon its attractiveness to the lesser winged guests which allure them, and which are by no means proved to be innocuous to crops: for, indeed, it seems no unplausible theory that among the atomic crowd drawn together by the fascinations of the barberry blossoms, may be some minute agent of a blight in corn, which, when it finds itself in proximity to a more congenial abode, may abandon its first resting-place on the shrub to effect a more pernicious lodgment in the grain. If this theory be correct, the old opinion of the barberry being injurious to corn, scoffed at as a mere superstition when set forth as the subtle and inexplicable working of a sort of vegetable feud, might be admitted and recognised as the reasonable outcome of a chain of simple natural causes.

By divesting it of its lower branches, and carefully removing all the suckers which it so liberally throws up, the barberry may be diverted from its natural bush-like growth, and made to assume a tree-like form; a change which improves not only its appearance but even its produce, since, when its strength is spent in sending up many shoots, the berries are comparatively small and few in number. Those of the ordinary barberry, of a long oval in shape, contain two or even sometimes three seeds; but a variety, more common in Normandy perhaps than anywhere else, entirely devoid of seeds, and more highly prized wherever it is grown than any other kind, is made by the confectioners of Rome into a celebrated sweetmeat known as Confiture d’Epine vinette—this French name for the barberry signifying acid, or sorrel-thorn. As this seedless sort of fruit is found only as the growth of poor soil, or on old plants, and even then it does not seem to be a permanent characteristic—since though the kind can be propagated by layers or cuttings, suckers taken from such bushes always, it is said, produce the common seeded berries; it is generally supposed that this sterile fruit is only a mark of weakness in the plant that bears it, rather than that its production denotes a distinct natural variety. Another rarer kind has smaller flowers, and bears a scantier crop of smaller berries perfectly white. But there are negroes as well as albinoes of this ordinarily red race; and an evergreen sort brought from the Straits of Magellan has round, sweet, black berries the size of a black currant, which are used in America, whether green or ripe, for baking in pies, and pronounced to be very good for the purpose. Yet another species, which flourishes specially at Nepal, displays large violet-coloured berries, with proportionately large seeds, which in India are dried like raisins in the sun, and then eaten at dessert. The Mahonias, or spiny-leaved barberries, which bear quite valueless fruit, were at one time assigned to a distinct genus, but are now included under the general term Berberis. The most esteemed of these is the aquifolium, or holly-leaved, whose glossy evergreen foliage, very similar in shape to that of holly, but glowing in autumn with the richest hues of crimson and purple, presents an appearance so attractive that for some years after its first introduction (from N.-W. America) in 1823, plants of it were readily bought at the price of ten guineas each. It is now a common ornament of our shrubberies.

Though so different a plant in many respects, an examination of the flower and fruit shows the barberry to be nearly akin to the vine, which is therefore classed in the Natural System as one of the Berberidæ, and the one perhaps most closely allied to the shrub which gives a name to that family. Whence its own name is derived seems to be rather uncertain. It is called by the Arabs Berberys, and Du Hamel says the term is derived from an Indian word signifying mother-of-pearl; while others, again, seek its etymology in the Greek berberi, or the Phœnician barar—the former meaning a shell, the latter the lustre of shells, the allusion being supposed to be either to the hollow shape or to the glossiness of the leaves, though the last named quality is certainly more apparent in the berries, which, at least in the case of the white-fruited sort, may be compared to some kinds of little shells. The Old-English name for the plant (still retained, it is said, in Cambridgeshire) is the pipperidge or piprage-bush.