All plants have stories. The Botanics over its 350 years has managed to create many, from intrepid tales of plant hunters to discovering plants new to science. Some you hear these stories during walk rounds as a student, others across the canteen table, uncovered in the library and latterly the internet with increasing ease.
One of the rather unassuming plants newly planted by the monkey puzzles is Berberis empetrifolia. If you haven’t heard of it you are not missing much to be perfectly honest. Phenotypically it is distinctly lacking ornamental prowess to catch the eye. It’s low growing, prostrate habit shows a tough life of having to live in the subalpine to alpine areas in the rocky Andes. However, when you dig a little deeper you unveil a rather interesting story.
A recently planted wild collected specimen of Berberis empetrifolia
B. empetrifolia is often overshadowed by its distant cousin. Berberis darwinii. Which was found by Charles Darwin in 1835 during ‘the voyage of the Beagle’ and subsequently named after him by Joseph Hooker (Icones plantarum 7, 1844). The two species are naturally found in Chile although geographically separated. Therefore a possible hybrid could only be formed in artificial environment. Some say the two have crossed paths in some localities but this is not agreed upon.
Berberis x stenophylla is the resulting hybrid of the two species B. darwinii and B. empetrifolia. After some digging into how the hybrid happen, the story got even more interesting. In this case a nursery owned by Messrs Fisher & Holmes of Handsworth near Sheffield in the 1860’s, it was Messrs who introduced B. empetrifolia into the trade in 1827 (International dendrological society, no date). His son found the hybrid 30+ years later in the garden.
They are rather “boring” species individually however, these two species have been hybridized to form a very ornamental, popular plant which can be easily grown, interpreted and of significance to the botanic garden.