The barberry shrub is a beautiful plant with a long history as a garden subject. These plants are easy to grow but have some very unfortunate characteristics. You should only consider growing barberry bushes if it is non-invasive in your area or if you live in an area where these plants are native. Read on to learn more about this controversial shrub.
What Is A Barberry Bush?
Barberry plants are shrubs of the Berberis genus. There are over 300 plants in this group and they may be deciduous or evergreen. The most popular species in cultivation is the Japanese barberry, B. thunbergii. Another very well-known Berberis species is the common barberry, B. vulgaris.
Unfortunately, both barberry species have become invasive in the United States and have some surprisingly negative impacts. The thick stands of these plants that develop become impenetrable, and the thorny mass attracts ticks which spread a dangerous illness known as Lyme disease.
B. thunbergii grows to about 6 feet (1.8m) tall and a little wider while B. vulgaris grows taller, reaching about 10 feet (3m) in height. The leaves are one of the easiest ways to distinguish between the common and Japanese species. In the Japanese Barberry, the leaves have smooth, entire margins, whereas, in the common species, the margins are toothed.
Barberry bushes have sharp spines which are not very visible. This is another key difference between these two shrubs. The spines are in threes in the common species, but single in its Japanese relative.
Barberry shrubs have very small pale yellow flowers that hang from the nodes of the stems. These flowers are produced in the spring months of April to May. The odor of these flowers can be sweet and fragrant, or strong and unpleasant.
Red to black berries are produced after flowering and persist on the plants throughout the winter. These edible berries are egg-shaped and measure up to about 0.4 inches (1cm) in length.
Other Barberry Species
There is a huge variety of Berberis species distributed throughout Asia and South America. The following are just a few well-known species:
- Korean barberry (B. koreana) – This East Asian species grows to about 6 feet (1.8m) tall and wide. It has good color and is deer resistant but also has invasive potential.
- Warty barberry (B. verruculosa) – This Chinese species grows to about 5 feet (1.5m) tall in full to partial shade, and has green leaves with silver undersides. The leaf margins are sharply toothed and the fruits are blackish in color.
- Darwin barberry (B. darwinii) – This plant from Chile and Argentina in South America is a popular gardening plant. This shrub produces abundant flowers and dark blue berries.
- American barberry (B. canadensis) – This is a North American native species. It does not have particularly outstanding qualities for the gardener but makes a fine addition to a native garden.
- Fendler’s barberry (B. fendleri) – This native shrub is a great alternative to exotic species. It has sweet-smelling flowers, bright red berries, and a good fall color.
How To Grow A Barberry Shrub
Barberry bushes thrive in well drained soil with a slightly acidic to neutral pH. A sandy or loamy soil enriched with organic matter, such as compost or peat moss, promotes healthy root growth and moisture retention. Ensure that the potting soil is not waterlogged, as barberries are susceptible to root rot in excessively wet conditions.
Water newly planted barberry bushes regularly to establish a strong root system. Once established, water them deeply but infrequently, allowing the top inch of soil to dry out between waterings.
During dry periods, provide supplemental irrigation to prevent drought stress. Avoid overwatering, as soggy soil can lead to root rot and other moisture-related issues.
Barberry bushes prefer full sun to partial shade, receiving at least six hours of sunlight daily. Plant barberry bushes in a location with adequate sunlight exposure, such as a south or west-facing garden bed. While they can tolerate partial shade, too much shade can result in leggy growth and reduced flowering.
Barberry bushes are relatively tolerant of humidity variations and do not require specific humidity levels. However, they prefer well-ventilated conditions to prevent fungal diseases, such as powdery mildew. Ensure good air circulation around the plants by spacing them adequately and avoiding overcrowding.
Feed barberry bushes with a balanced, slow-release fertilizer in early spring, just before new growth begins. Choose a fertilizer formulated for deciduous shrubs and apply it according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
Avoid over-fertilizing, as excessive nitrogen can lead to lush foliage at the expense of flowering. Additionally, incorporate organic matter into the soil annually to provide a natural source of nutrients.
Barberry Care And Maintenance
Barberry bushes are about as tough as they come. These plants will probably survive any mistake you’re likely to make in the garden, which is a quality that makes them so good at displacing native flora.
These are very spiny plants that can be difficult to work with. Wear eye protection, gloves, and long sleeves when pruning this plant to guard against the thorns. They grow at a moderate rate and pruning these plants back hard every 7 years or so is advised (2).
These plants are generally pest and disease resistant, although they are occasionally susceptible to conditions like root rot and leaf spot, as well infestations of bagworms, aphids, and scale (3).
Common Varieties and Cultivars
Barberry bushes (Berberis) offer a diverse array of varieties and cultivars, each with unique characteristics and attributes. Some popular varieties include:
- ‘Crimson Pygmy’: Known for its compact size and attractive foliage with a deep burgundy hue, ‘Crimson Pygmy’ adds a bold splash of color to garden borders and landscapes.
- ‘Rose Glow’: This rose glow barberry features variegated leaves with shades of pink, purple, and cream, creating a striking contrast against its dark stems.
- ‘Golden Nugget’: With bright yellow foliage that turns orange in fall, ‘Golden Nugget’ brightens up any garden with its vibrant color.
- ‘Orange Rocket’: This upright variety boasts fiery orange foliage that matures to a rich burgundy-red, making it a standout feature in any garden setting.
These plants are often grown as a spiny security barrier and can be maintained as either a formal or informal hedge. It does well in borders but should not be planted along pathways or near swimming pools and other high-traffic areas
Barberries are well known as food plants and the berries are nutritious but rather acidic in taste.
Berberis plants are fairly deer resistant, although the hungriest of deer will find ways to work around the sharp spines.
Do barberries like sun or shade?
Barberries generally prefer full sun to partial shade. They can tolerate some shade but tend to exhibit richer foliage color and better growth in sunnier locations.
Why are my barberry shrubs dying?
Barberry shrubs may die due to various reasons, including fungal diseases like root rot, pests such as aphids or scale insects, environmental stressors like extreme temperatures or drought, or improper planting and care practices. Assessing factors like soil drainage, watering frequency, and pest infestations can help determine the cause.
Where does barberry grow best?
Barberry grows best in well-drained soil with good air circulation and full sun to partial shade. It is adaptable to various soil types and can thrive in different climates, making it a versatile landscaping plant.
When should barberry bushes be pruned?
Barberry bushes are typically pruned in late winter to early spring before new growth emerges. This timing allows for shaping the shrub, removing dead or diseased branches, and promoting healthy growth during the growing season.
Why is my barberry turning yellow?
Barberry leaves may turn yellow due to various reasons, including nutrient deficiencies (such as iron or nitrogen), overwatering, poor soil drainage, pests, diseases, or environmental stressors. Conducting a soil test, checking for pests or diseases, and assessing watering practices can help determine the cause of yellowing leaves and appropriate corrective actions.
With all the negative press these plants get, it is probably better to choose an alternative shrub for your next gardening project. Sterile forms are now available, but removing any berries that are produced is advised.
For more common and non-invasive bushes to grow, see this list of garden shrubs and bushes.
- Toogood, A. Plant Propagation: The Fully Illustrated Plant-By-Plant Manual Of Practical Techniques
- Brickell, C. Joyce, D. Pruning & Training: What, When & How To Prune.
- North Carolina State Extension. Berberis Thunbergii
- Imenshahidi, M & Hosseinzadeh, H. Berberis Vulgaris and Berberine: An Update Review
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