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 this plant 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 fruits 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, red berries, and a good fall color.
How To Grow A Barberry Shrub
In some states in the United States, it is illegal to sell, plant, or transplant barberry bush because of its invasive nature. In those areas, it is advisable also to remove any established plants that you know of.
Unless you live in a country where this plant is native or are absolutely certain that it is not invasive in your area, It is suggested to pick an alternative species that does not have the negative characteristics of this plant.
Berberis plants can be grown from cuttings although this is not always easy. The best results are usually achieved from semi-ripe cuttings taken in midsummer. Using root hormone powder can speed up root development. The best way to propagate new barberry plants is by division and this is best done in the spring and fall (1).
Barberry trees are adaptable to a variety of soil conditions and are drought tolerant. They can be grown in full sun or partial shade in zones 4-8.
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).
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.
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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