I don’t think I would ever include a berberis in my top ten ‘must-have’ garden plants but I do like them. I didn’t always feel this way and when I was a student at Kew my heart always sank when it was announced that the areas included in the identification tests included the Berberis Dell. Seemingly endless acres of freeform beds overflowing with nondescript, prickly shrubs, all with tiny yellow or creamy flowers was enough to put the most excited student to sleep or rushing for the warmth of the palm house. Berberis is a huge genus that is found throughout the temperate areas of the world, the only exception being Australia.
I think it is likely that the few species that have been incorporated into our gardens probably represent the more interesting ones though some of the less well known ones deserve more attention. Part of the trouble is that there is a lot of taxonomic confusion. I am not sure what the current name is for the plant I know as B. wilsoniae but this is a plant I have not seen for sale for ages but it is a wonder in autumn with its gorgeous pink/red translucent berries. The ever-increasing number of B. thunbergii cultivars seems to have curtailed interest in any other species.
Anyway my interest was piqued the other week at Dublin botanics when one berberis shone like a beacon among the beds of rather nondescript prickly brutes. What made it special was the berries which were bright scarlet, abundant and showy. Unfortunately I don’t know anything more about it than the name!
Called Berberis francisco-fernandii, I don’t even know if it is evergreen, though it looked as if it was at least partly so. And the name? Well I have been trying to find out what the name is all about and I think it is most likely that it is named after the two Austrian Bauer brothers, Francis (Franz) and Ferdinand, who were botanical artists. Francis (1758-1840) travelled to England at the age of 30 where he was employed as a resident botanical artist by Sir Joseph Banks. He was known as the ‘Botanick Painter to His Majesty’ and he remained at Kew for the rest of his life and is buried in the churchyard on Kew Green. His brother Ferdinand (1760-1826) had a more adventurous life and spent much of it on ships exploring, and painting, the flora of the world, including with Captain Flinders on HMS Investigator to map Australia. His name is commemorated in the names of many Australian plants. But could this pair also have given their name to this berberis? And where does it come from? Or could it be named after Archduke Franz Ferdinand?