Red Barberry

Another shrub of the Southwestern United States (CA, CO, NV, TX, AZ, NM)  and Northern Mexico (Sonora) is red barberry (Berberis haematocarpa).  A native perennial, red barberry can be found associated with rocky slopes, grasslands, chaparral, canyons and pinyon-juniper woodlands at elevations of 4,500′ or lower.

The leaves of this shrub, which grows from 3′ to 8′, are evergreen or deciduous. Holly-like, red barberry leaves are thick, rigid, covered with a cuticle of wax and have spiny, toothed edges. The golden flowers have nine sepals and six petals arranged in whorls of three and occur in clusters of three to five blossoms. The small, juicy, flavorful fruits are purple when mature.

Native peoples ate the fruits, fresh and preserved. Infusions of the roots and wood treated eye ailments and liver or gall bladder disorders. The roots also provided a yellow dye. Today red barberry fruits continue to be used for jams and jellies. Wildlife also eat the fruits.

Red barberry is also cultivated as an ornamental. Unfortunately this shrub is a secondary (alternate) host for black stem rust (the fungus, Pycnia graminis) of cereal grains. As a result several states have banned the sale of red barberry.

Other common names for B. haematocarpa include holly grape, mahonia and algerita, among others.

This red barberry specimen was growing in the Sonoran Desert near Green Valley AZ.


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