Every once in a while, on your garden travels you come across a standout plant – used well, grown perfectly and positioned for optimal effect. So it was with Berberis valdiviana when I spied it first. On the first sight of this rare shrub, in full flower, I was hooked; a whole shrub covered in trembling drops of bright orange flowers arranged like expensive earrings all along the branches. It was a sight to behold. It took a while to search out a plant for myself, but sometimes the chase is half the fun. Eventually, having tracked one down and placed it in my garden I waited with bated breath. Gardening rewards patience and I was rewarded with its first egg yolk yellow flowers two years later and now, five years on, it is a spectacle in April and one of my favourite sights.
Berberis valdiviana originates in Chile where it grows in Valdivia Province and eventually reaches 4 metres tall by about 4 metres wide approximately. Coming from the Berberidaceae or Barberry family it has the typical spines (on the stem in this instance) and yellow flowers with typical purplish fruit afterwards. In April and May it is festooned with racemes of bright mandarin orange flowers much adored by bees, for the rest of the year it keeps is perfectly polished, evergreen foliage and quietly fades into the background. Its hardy to -15 degrees, it is not fussy about soil and needs no pruning or staking.
So why is nobody growing this? I think the answer to this question lies in its availability, for years it was one of the holy grail of shrubs, seen in the best gardens but rarely available. Now with more nurseries and thankfully lots more plant enthusiasts, it is propagated more and available more. It is notoriously difficult to propagate and so, although it is more available than before it is not widely available. If you find one consider yourself blessed.
This is tough and hardy shrub, it will do well in any soil but a good start in a loamy soil with a dressing of well rotted manure will be appreciated. There is no special pruning required. It would work well in a border, as a specimen or planted in a mixed shrubbery as I have done. It mixes well with other shrubs particularly magnolias and provides a useful contrast to other spring flowering plants many of whom are white or pink flowered.
It can also be grown in grass and I have seen it planted this way with a spinking of late flowering Narcissi which makes a beautiful scene. I can strongly recommend trying it with Narcissus WP Milner – the beautiful pale lemon of the Narcissus contrasts wonderfully with the vivid orange of the Berberis. Shrubs that do such a sterling job should always be rewarded with a place in your garden and this is one of the best performers that you can find. Propagation is from one year old wood and performs best if there is a heel on the cutting. Cuttings are very slow to take root and it may be up to a year before you can be confident you have succeeded. If this is not on your garden wishlist it should be, it is very special.