We all know berberis shrubs, often big unruly monsters with vicious thorns (which we rapidly discover when trying to reduce them to a more manageable size). But within the berberidaceae family is the genus gymnospermium, comprising twelve members. These are small plants growing from a tuber, flowering in early spring. They are native to temperate Europe and Asia and are suitable for growing in British gardens with a couple of caveats.
Firstly, they require good drainage. Growing on the sides of mountains in the wild, often in shaly soil, they don’t get moisture sitting around the tuber, especially in the winter when they have a covering of snow. A raised bed, possibly with a cover over it during our coldest months, seems to offer the best chance of success. They often tuck their tubers under stones or small rocks, ensuring sufficient moisture without drying out in summer.
At only a couple of inches high, Gymnospermium altaicum warrants close inspection
The flowers emerge first, closely followed by the unfolding foliage on red stems.
In comparison, Gymnospermium albertii is a monster at six inches
The red colouring on the reverse of the flowers makes this a most desirable plant.
So if you’re fed up with being attacked by berberis, or you only have a small space to fill with spring colour, try these tiny relatives instead.