When Charles Darwin explored Chile between 1832 and 1835 during his voyages aboard the Beagle, he collected 248 different vascular plants. One of these lucky plants was Berberis darwinii, named after him by Sir William Hooker, the director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew from 1841 until 1865.
It is obvious why Darwin would have collected this plant on his expedition when he had such limited space to securely transport his collections back home. This very showy evergreen shrub offers beauty and interest year round. Its small glossy leaves are reminiscent of holly leaves, and they thickly cover the branches. The shrub has a fountain-like habit, with branches spilling out in large arches. In early spring, the plant erupts with color as electric orange flowers begin to bloom. The flowers so densely cover the shrub that it becomes difficult to see the foliage behind them! After flowering, the flowers fall and the fruit begins to ripen in their place. Because this plant can self-pollinate, it has a consistent bounty of fruit. Soon, the shrub is covered in small, dark blue-purple berries that are very popular amongst the birds in the garden. The berries are also edible to humans, having a slightly acidic flavor that lessens as the berry ripens. Take care however, because not only are the leaves sharply serrated, but the branches are also covered in small spines.
Before Darwin discovered this plant and introduced it to the West, it was already well known in its native habitat. It is native to southern Chile and Argentina, where it is most commonly known as "michay". In addition to the berries being edible, the plant is also frequently used for its many healing properties. The roots and rhizomes contain the chemical berberine, which is known to have antibacterial effects, particularly for digestive problems and the urinary tract.
Since its introduction in the 19th century, this striking shrub has been used in landscapes and gardens throughout the world. Like Darwin, you too have the chance to enjoy Berberis darwinii's interesting foliage, flowers, and fruit, right here at the San Francisco Botanical Garden.
IN BLOOM CONTRIBUTORS: Text and profile by Sarah Callan. Photos by James Gaither and Joanne Taylor.