Shrubby plants may seem inviting, but thorns lie in wait

Berberis darwinii is useful to fill a gap and, thanks to the birds, it seeds all over the garden. Picture by Tom Pattinson.
Berberis darwinii is useful to fill a gap and, thanks to the birds, it seeds all over the garden. Picture by Tom Pattinson.

Shrubby plants are such a useful asset. They provide structure and year-round colour, support bird populations and a host of other positives, but no matter how familiar their appearance becomes, never take them for granted.

The message came loud and clear yet again last week with a painful reminder that some just don’t take any prisoners.

Nature has provided several such species with thorns, spines or prickles as a means of self-preservation, and when it comes to using them there’s no distinction between the friendly gardener and the intruder.

Working in a crowded rose garden confirms that even within a species their thorns vary so much. Most are content with inflicting a modest scratch, but some cause real pain.

The delightfully named Rose of Eglantine is a sweet briar whose young leaves emit the fragrance of ripe apples when rubbed between finger and thumb. But it’s a serial offender in this garden, with viciously curved thorns lying in wait.

Similarly, if you reach out to touch the flagon-shaped fruits of Rosa moyesii Geranium, do so with caution. Sniffing fragrant hybrid teas is also fraught with danger.

But there are some gardener-friendly roses, such as the bourbon Zephirine Drouhin that has none at all.

Shrubby berberis is the first that springs to mind when we have a gap to plug in the garden because it’s attractive on several fronts, and depending on the species, an effective aggressor.

Darwin’s barberry, Berberis darwinii, is a most popular evergreen version, with orange-yellow flowers and blue berries. It seeds all over the place thanks to birds consuming the fruits and depositing them at random.

Rounding-up the young plants in autumn and transferring to a chosen spot can be the beginning of an attractive screen or hedge. It’s a popular nesting site for blackbird and thrush, who no doubt see it as an impenetrable fortress.

However, left to grow freely on good land, it can reach five-metres high, with a similar spread. Removal of such monsters is in stages and demands heavy hand, arm and face protection.

Berberis thunbergii is a favourite deciduous type, with reddish-purple leaves that offer a spectacular colour change.

The cultivar Gold Ring is eye-catching, with a narrow golden margin to the foliage. Firethorn, pyracantha, grows well against walls, and my favourite, P. coccinea Lalandei, has the best large orange-red fruits.

The thorn-laden Japanese quince, Chaenomeles japonica, is another popular choice. It offers orange-red blooms, followed by yellow fruits.