- may have black, purple, white or yellow berries;
- some are seedless;
- some varieties are more tart than others;
- some varieties are better just grown as ornamentals.
Most varieties grow on thorny bushes that produce yellow blossoms with a very musty scent.
The most common variety is called “common barberry” (aka Berberis vulgaris.) The oblong berries (about ½ inch /1 cm long) grow in clusters and ripen to red and have a tart taste.
Barberries were used for a sour taste before lemons became available. They were often pickled in vinegar and sugar and served as a sweet-and-sour pickle. They are good for preserves, sauces and jellies, and can also be used in pies and baked goods.
The leaves were used in some parts of the British Isles as an herb to flavour meat. In India, the leaves and shoots of some varieties are used as a tea or vegetable. In the Middle East and parts of Asia, the berries are dried and used as a dried fruit in cooking.
One variety, Darwin, is reputedly sweet enough to eat out of hand.
The cultivation of Barberries has been banned in North America near agricultural areas, though some regulations have been relaxed to allow for some rust-resistant varieties. The bush has been suspected of harbouring a rust disease that can impact wheat and corn, so many centuries-old patches have been pulled out.
Barberries are sold dried in Middle Eastern food stores.
The common Barberry is native to Europe and Asia; it was introduced to North America.
Literature & Lore
“How to preserve Barberries: Select the largest and fairest bunches, picking off the withered or shrunk Barberries, and wash them clean, drying them in a clean Cloth. After this, take a quantity of Barberries, and boil them in Claret-wine till they be soft; then strain them well through a Strainer, wringing the juice hard through it; boil this strained liquor with Sugar, till it be thick, and very sweet; let it then stand till it be cold, then put your branches of Barberries into Gally-pots, and fill them up with this liquor; by this means you will have both the Syrrup of Barberries, and their Preserves.”
— Hannah Woolley. The Gentlewomans Companion. London. 1673.
The name Barberries comes from the word “berber”. They are called “zereshk” in Persian.