In the heart of almost every person there resides a palpable tug for the underdog. I am no exception. For instance, back in the old days (a few months ago) whenever a football game was telecast live, even if was between Slippery Rock and some opponent from a remote stretch of Idaho, I always rooted for the underdog. It was just nature striving for success by some team whose institution had not won a game in three years. 

Barberries represent the underdog of the ornamental plant world. 

Mention barberries and the reaction is usually, “Oh they have those awful stickers.” Well, so do roses, but they are sold by the millions every year to people who will abide the vicious thorns and numerous other frailties to grow just “one perfect rose.” And one is just about what most of us get. 

Barberries, on the other hand — whose “stickers” are not nearly as vicious as a rose’s sure enough thorns — offer varieties that will fill varied roles in any ornamental garden. 

Just about the most popular barberry is, I suppose, ‘Crimson Pygmy,’ a dwarf at about two feet that is sometimes seen making up a smart hedge when trimmed betimes, sometimes also in a knot garden with boxwoods completing the pairing that completes the knot.

No, ‘Crimson Pygmy’ is not evergreen, but with repeated shearing it thickens almost to the degree that provides a solid front. The leaves are not exactly crimson, but closer to maroon, thus making a contrast to its neighbors. 

I have two of these in a mixed border of mostly pastels and the color in no way fights with the other things, but complements them nicely. 

My “red” border, so called, does contain a lot of reds, but also strong yellows and oranges and other ingredients that stay on the yellow side of the color spectrum.

This bed is some eight feet deep by 60 feet long, and there are no less than seven barberries in it, some repeaters and others singletons. 

Just about the best things in that border are two ‘Orange Rocket’ barberries, that came on the market some 10 years ago. 

The leaf color is not orange in toto, but has tints of it, along with maroon, red, pink and grades in between, blended into a matte finish that has none of the glare that the word “orange” sometimes infers. Another great thing about this plant is its vertical growth habit. I cut mine back every late winter and the resulting new growth, to three feet or more, has the best coloration, which lasts the growing season through. 

Nearby, but not abutting, the ‘Orange Rockets,’ is an older variety with a more rounded habit, ‘Rose Glow.’ The foliage, particularly on new growth, is a delightful variegation of dull white, pink, sure enough rose, and a darker red. This is not as hectic as it sounds, as most of the coloration is soft. ‘Rose Glow’ will grow to possibly six feet if not impeded, which mine are as, again, they are cut back in spring.

‘Concord’ has the habit of ‘Crimson Pygmy’ and it appears at one end of the border. It is less red than ‘Crimson Pygmy,’ and more of a deep purple, a la concord grapes.

There is one other barberry here, right in the center of the border, that has a dwarf habit and variegated leaves of orange and red. I am sorry I can’t remember its name, but it fits right here in this border.

Barberries might not be the star of the show at any given time, but fill their role as supporting cast with aplomb.  


From Poor Willie’s Almanack — Speaking of football, one of the few television commercials over the years that appealed to me featured iconic Alabama football coach Bear Bryant, and was for Southern Bell Telephone Co. He was talking straight into the camera, but the assumption was he was talking to his team. 

He said to them, “Have you called your Mama today? I sure wish I could call mine.” A tearjerker with a message.


JIMMY WILLIAMS is the garden writer for The Post-Intelligencer, where he can be contacted on Monday mornings at 642-1162.

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