NORTH COAST GARDENING: Butterflies, Birds, Bees Love Darwin Barberry

The much-needed sun and warmth of these recent January afternoons have enticed a variety of wild creatures to the garden. Suddenly a few dandelions bloom in the grass. No big deal at first, but look, there is a sparrow devouring a fresh yellow blossom.

Another warm afternoon arrives, and then another along with more dandelions. A poor, ragged Painted Lady butterfly chooses a yellow flower. With a lower left portion of a wing torn off, its colors faded, bits and pieces of wings missing here and there, the butterfly lands on a dandelion flower and sips nectar deeply as if it had just hatched from its chrysalis. The sun warms its wings. It spies a shadow and flits away energetically, as if its wings were fresh, unscathed. Then suddenly, in mere seconds, the butterfly returns to the lone dandelion to sip more.

Many gardeners do not want dandelions in their gardens, yet they still want to attract butterflies, bees and birds. An especially showy winter plant that wildlife prefers is the Darwin barberry, Berberis darwinii. From now through late spring, this evergreen shrub smothers itself with hundreds of tiny orange flowers that hummers love to visit. Bees and butterflies are also attracted to the flowers. After blooming, Darwin barberry produces clusters of dark blue fruit that provide food for wild birds later in the summer.

Sparrows and songbirds love to hang out in the thick, leathery, green foliage. So do the Pacific tree frogs. Even though Darwin barberry is not native to our area, (it was discovered by Darwin in South America), this shrub offers valuable habitat to the wild critters that we need in our gardens.

Darwin barberry also has much to offer the gardener as well. This low-maintenance, compact shrub makes a wonderful hedge or windscreen. With a little patience and time, you can train it into a small patio tree. It tolerates poor soil and cold, harsh wind.

Darwin barberry is a prickly shrub that serves well as a security landscape plant. Locate it in areas where you do not want people to hang out. Use it as a foundation plant under windows. Once established, Darwin barberry requires very little summer water, unless it’s planted in hot, inland areas.

This shrub averages 6 to 10 feet tall and 4 feet wide. It grows in full sun or shade, blooming dependably every winter and spring. Pests and diseases are not a problem. Deer do not feed on it.

Darwin barberry is commonly found in the yards of older neighborhoods. It is not a fashionable, trendy plant you might see in newly landscaped areas. Maybe it’s too coarse, or too orange for some. However, if you want to attract the wild ones to your yard, consider this shrub. It will make a winter hungry hummingbird’s life easier.

And quite easily you can keep a dandelion or two around, just in case the January days turn warm, whetting the appetite of an old butterfly.

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