Neotropical Berberidaceae

Carmen Ulloa

Missouri Botanical Garden, USA. 


Shrubs or rarely small trees, often spiny, up to 10 m, mostly glabrous or sometimes with tomentose stems and pedicels. Spines (the reduced leaves of long shoots) palmate to leafy, simple or 3-parted. Leaves alternate, along the stem or often in rosettes, simple (always in South America) or 1-odd-pinnately compound; petioles usually present. Blades (simple leaves or leaflets) narrowly elliptic, oblanceolate, obovate, or orbiculate, 1-8 cm, sometimes articulate at base with the petiole or rachis, margins entire or spinose-toothed; venation pinnate or 3-6-veined from base, blade surface sometimes pruinose (with powdery surface) below. Inflorescences terminal, usually racemes, rarely umbels or flowers solitary. Flowers 3-merous, generally less than 10 mm, yellow to orange, sometimes tinged with red, the perianth petaloid composed of 3 to 6 whorls; bracteoles caducous, 3, scale-like; the two inner whorls are nectariferous with two darker glands visible at the lower inner surface; stamens 6; anthers almost as long as the filaments, dehiscing by valves, sometimes with small tooth-like appendages at base of the anther; ovary superior, barrel-shaped, 1-celled; placentation basal, up to 10 seeds; style very short to elongate; stigma large. Fruit a berry, spheric to cylindric-ovoid or ellipsoid, less than 1 cm, reddish-brown turning dark purple to black, sometimes pruinose, usually juicy. Seeds 1 to few, tan to red-brown or black; aril absent.

Notes on delimitation

  • One genus: Berberis L. (includes Mahonia Nutt.), diverse worldwide in the Northern hemisphere, in the Western hemisphere it reaches South America along the Andes, extending to Tierra del Fuego and east to southeastern Brazil.

Distribution in the Neotropics

  • Berberis: restricted in the Neotropics to mountain regions, generally above 2000 m in Mexico, Central America, the Andes, and southeastern Brazil.
  • Simple leaved species occur throughout the range.
  • Species with compound leaves (previously referred as Mahonia) only occur from Mexico to Costa Rica and do not reach South America.

Distinguishing characters (always present)

  • Wood bright yellow (presence of Berberin).
  • Spiny shrubs with spiny leaves.
  • Perianth petaloid with various whorls, yellow to orange; the two inner whorls with nectaries at the base.

Number of genera

  • One genus: Berberis (incl. Mahonia).

Useful tips for generic identification

  • Spiny shrubs, with yellow wood.
  • Leaves coriaceous, with spiny margins, often with an articulation at the base of the blade with the petiole.
  • Flowers less than 10 mm long, yellow to orange, perianth petaloid with various whorls.
  • Fruits small drupes, less than 1 cm, reddish-brown when young and turning deep purple black at maturity, often pruinose.
  • Common in páramos and punas.


  • Native. Shrubs are often found in open, disturbed areas, rarely inside the forest.

General notes

  • Berberis is easy to recognize at generic level, however species are sometimes difficult to delimit especially due to the great variation in leaf size and shape and the great number of species described.
  • Berberin (an alkaloid) is used as a dye (yellow).
  • Fruits are eaten locally in jams.

Important literature

Ahrendt, L. W. A. 1961. Berberis and Mahonia. A taxonomic revision. Journal of the Linnean Society, Botany 57: 1-410.

Bernal, H. Y. & J. E. Correra Q. 1989. Berberidaceae, In: Especies vegetales promisorias del Convenio Andrés Bello. Tomo II. Bogotá, D. E.

Camargo, L. A. 1966. Especies nuevas del género Berberis de Colombia, Ecuador y Venezuela. Caldasia 9: 313-351.

Camargo, L. A. 1981 Especies nuevas del género Berberis - II. Caldasia 13(62): 203-222.

Camargo, L. A. 1983. Especies nuevas del género Berberis - III. Caldasia 13(65): 685-691.

Camargo, L. A. 1992. Especies nuevas del género Berberis - IV. Caldasia 16(79) 419-424.

Kim, Y.D. & R. L. Jansen. 1998. Chloroplast DNA restriction site variation and phylogeny of the Berberidaceae. Amer. J. Bot. 84: 1766--1778.

Landrum, LR. (1999). Berberis (Berberidaceae) in Chile and adjacent Argentina. Annals Missouri Bot. Gard. 86:793-834.

Lechler, W. 1857. Berberides Americae australis. Stuggart.

Schneider, C. K. 1904-5. Die Gattung Berberis (Euberberis). Vorarbeiten für eine Monographie. Bulletin de l'Herbier Boissier, sér. 2, 5: 33-48; 133-148, 391-403, 449-464, 655-670, 800-831.

Ulloa Ulloa, C. 1999. Berberidaceae. In: P.M. Jřrgensen & S. León-Yánez (eds). Catalogue of Vascular plants of Ecuador. - Monogr. Syst. Bot. Missouri Bot. Gard. 75: 319-320.

Ulloa Ulloa, C. 2008. Berberidaceae. Pp. 269. In: Hokche, O., P.E. Berry & O. Huber (eds). Nuevo Catálogo de la Flora Vascular de Venezuela: Fundación Instituto Botánico de Venezuela, Caracas.

Ulloa Ulloa, C. (compiler). 2009 (onwards). Berberis checklist. Tropicos Project.

How to cite

Ulloa, C. (2009). Neotropical Berberidaceae. In: Milliken, W., Klitgĺrd, B. & Baracat, A. (2009 onwards), Neotropikey - Interactive key and information resources for flowering plants of the Neotropics.