PLANT OF THE WEEK #108: Berberis 'Helmond Pillar'

Distinct/readable/legible shape is the characteristic most sadly lacking in the wide group of plants we call shrubs.  Hence the ubiquitous use of clipping in the work of influential designers like Fiona Brockhoff or Nicole de Vesian. 

Actually, to be really precise, clipping is not only about shape, but is also about crispness of outline, but both characteristics are rare in the world of shrubs.

There’s nothing, for instance, in shrub-land with the emphatic shape and outline of the best form of Italian cypress (Cupressus sempervirens ‘Glauca’). (Actually, the best of all is Cupressus ‘Swane’s Gold’ – an Australian selection – but I’ve never yet, in thirty years of designing gardens, wanted a bright golden exclamation mark in any of my gardens.  But I admit, I’ve looked at ‘Swane’s Gold’ longingly, wishing that there was a deep green equivalent).

There’s junipers like Juniperus ‘Blue Arrow’, that are nice and tight for the first four or five years, after which they open up, and lose all shape-conviction.

So when you find something capable, with not much work, of adding a very distinct shape to the shrub layer of any garden you take it seriously.

Berberis ‘Helmond Pillar’ at Frensham, NZ

Hence Berberis ‘Helmond Pillar’.  It’s an anomaly, being a thorny deciduous shrub with an upright brush a branches.  But when tied up, with something like black bailing twine, as I’ve seen it in several New Zealand gardens, it’s fabulously crisp and tight while being somewhat organic at the same time.  It’s long, narrow tear-drop shape is predictable, but there’s a whimsical, Dr-Suessian freedom in which it expresses this shape.

Berberis ‘Helmond Pillar’ at Fisherman’s Bay, NZ

It only asks for the same conditions that it’s rounded, pudding-shaped parent (Berberis thunbergii f. atropurpurea) wants – a well drained spot with full sun through to moderate shade, and is both drought and frost tolerant.

But there’s nothing quite like Berberis ‘Helmond Pillar’ for shape.  Like it not, you’ve kind of got to be grateful for it!

Turns out that the shape of plants is one of their most important characteristics, when putting plants together, according to discussions I have with six of the most articulate and celebrated garden designers in the world in our online symposium coming up this Saturday, June 3 2023. Grab your ticket now! Click here for more info.


  1. Sadly I looked at those pics and thought “How much better would it look without the ‘Helmond Pillars'”. My brain just says no to the random growth. I have often thought about getting some over the years, the thorns put me off, but now, I lust no more!

    1. I agree with you. The garden would look more appealing without them.

  2. I think I love them. Their sense of movement, their light-heartedness and the element of surprise. A kind of living sculpture.

Leave a Comment

More Blog Posts

PLANT OF THE WEEK #22: Rosemary 'Tuscan Blue'

Have you ever thought about how few shrubs there are that carry within their structure any strength of form?  A number have a predictable shape, but form – which says more about the visible ‘forc ...

Tolerance v Preference

It’s not surprising that one of the things we consistently want to understand about a plant is its drought tolerance. But it’s not at all clear what we mean by that.  The default position is to e ...

Snowdrops and icecrystals

Neither snowdrops or hellebores are frost sensitive, and they’re happy in climates colder than the coldest of ours in Australia.  But that’s not to say that they’re unaffected by frost.   When ...