Barberry bushes are robust evergreen or deciduous shrubs with bright green, red, orange, or burgundy foliage.
Whether you’re growing it as a hedge, as a foundation planting, or even as an individual specimen in your ornamental garden, the barberry bush is one to consider if you’re looking for a hardy, adaptable, low-maintenance option that’s appealing throughout the year.
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Growing up to 10 feet tall, depending on the variety, members of the Berberis genus have a uniform growth habit and produce attractive foliage.
But not all barberry shrubs are alike. There are more than 400 known species of barberry plants.
Some are deciduous while others are evergreen, and some have thorns while others do not. Certain species are even considered invasive in some areas.
Most species in the genus are native to east Asia and others are from North or South America. And there are a few non-native species that have naturalized in Africa, Europe, and North America, too.
Barberry shrubs typically grow best in USDA Hardiness Zones 4 through 8, but there are some, when provided with shade during the heat of summer, that can even thrive in Zone 9.
A few rare cultivars may even be grown in even more extreme climates including that of Zones 3 and 10.
Ready to give this beautiful plant a go?
Here’s what I’ll cover:
What You’ll Learn
What Is Barberry?
Barberries have dazzling foliage that can be either a vivid green or span the entire spectrum of fall colors in season; red, orange, and burgundy are popular color options available for growing in home gardens.
The shrubs usually produce yellow or orange flowers, and waxy purple or red berries.
These shrubs can be tall or compact, thriving in sun or shade. They are durable and generally disease-resistant, tolerating drought and poor soil with ease.
Some species of this plant, such as Berberis vulgaris, produce edible berries that are prized for their culinary applications.
The berries are commonly used in dishes like rice pilaf in Iran, for example, and to flavor many kinds of candies in Russia.
In addition, the berries from these plants have been used medicinally for more than 2,500 years.
Today, they are still a common treatment in some parts of the world for conditions like heartburn and various digestive problems.
A Note of Caution:
Though common in certain medicinal traditions, not all types of barberry are edible and may in fact be deemed mildly toxic.
Please note that livestock, pets, and children should be kept away from these plants as the thorns can cause injury.
Never consume foraged berries unless you are absolutely sure of the species.
There are a few ways to propagate barberry bushes, including by seed, rooting cuttings, and via transplant.
If you plan to grow this plant from seed, the good news is that you can sow at any time of the year, as long as the ground is not frozen.
The best time to plant seeds outdoors is in the fall, as they require cold stratification to germinate and this will happen naturally over the winter months. They will germinate in early to mid-spring.
If you are planting at any other time of year, or wish to start seeds indoors, you’ll need to place them in the refrigerator for six to eight weeks prior to sowing.
After you have cold stratified the seeds, mix together equal parts compost and vermiculite or perlite in a seed-starting tray. Lightly moisten the medium, and sow seeds a quarter of an inch deep and two inches apart, then cover the tray with plastic.
Place the tray of seeds in an area where temperatures are consistently between 55-65°F. Maintain even moisture in the potting medium but do not allow it become waterlogged. The seeds should germinate in one to four months.
After germination, you can remove the plastic cover.
When your seedlings are two to three inches tall, transplant to individual, three- to four- inch pots filled with potting mix.
Keep them in a protected area and maintain even moisture until they are eight to 12 inches tall when you can transplant them into the garden as described below.
You can take stem cuttings in early spring from the new growth or semi-hardwood cuttings in midsummer.
Begin by disinfecting your pruning tools to prevent the spread of disease. Then, take a four to six-inch cutting.
Strip any buds or leaves from the lower third of the cutting. Then, dip the cut end of the stem in powdered rooting hormone.
Insert the cut end in a propagation tray filled with sterile growing medium moistened with water to a depth of about two to three inches deep (or half the length of the cutting).
If you’re planting multiple cuttings, space them so that the leaves of each do not touch.
Water lightly and cover the container with a clear plastic bag or a humidity dome. Mist them regularly, at least once a day during the rooting period.
After about four weeks, you can lightly tug on the stem cutting to check for root growth.
If you feel resistance, cuttings are ready to transplant. At this point, you can transplant them to individual containers filled with sterile potting soil.
Keep them indoors or in a greenhouse, where they will be protected from the elements, for at least the first year of growth before planting out.
When planting seedlings or potted nursery plants, dig a hole that is at least three times as wide and deep as the container it is currently growing in.
You may want to mix in some organic matter and sand to improve fertility and drainage. If you’re planting in well-draining, moist soil of average fertility, this is probably not necessary.
Cut the container away from your barberry to prevent damaging the roots as you remove the plant.
Loosen some of the feeder roots and set the plant in the soil so that the top of the root ball is at or just above ground level.
Backfill with soil and water deeply.
How to Grow
Barberry bushes should be planted in full sun or partial shade. The warmer the growing zone, the more shade you should provide your plants to prevent the leaves from scorching.
These robust plants can tolerate a variety of soil types, but ideally, they enjoy loamy, well-draining soil with a pH of 6.0-7.5.
They can tolerate moist or dry soils, as well as urban conditions, such as heavy pollution and salt spray from roadways, which makes them perfect for use as a privacy screen.
Fertilizing is not usually necessary.
However, adding a three-inch layer of organic mulch like wood chips or straw at planting time can help with moisture retention and weed prevention while the young shrub is establishing strong roots.
Apply the mulch immediately after planting and reapply once per year, ideally just before the start of winter to protect the roots from freezing temperatures.
Be sure to keep it about an inch away from the stem, to prevent rot.
In some cases, growing this plant in a container may make sense for your landscaping needs. The soil should be moist but well-draining.
Use a container with drainage holes and a porous potting mix that includes pumice or perlite to assist with drainage. The pot should be around eight inches larger in diameter than the root ball of the plant.
- Plant in full sun to partial shade
- Grow in moist, well-draining soil
- Mulch with three inches of organic matter placed at least an inch from the plant’s stem
Pruning and Maintenance
For most varieties, pruning is not necessary. Your bushes should grow in a relatively uniform, compact fashion.
However, you can prune if you wish to achieve a certain shape or to remove dead or diseased branches.
Try to keep pruning to a minimum. If you are pruning for shape, do so only a couple of times a year, ideally during the winter or fall after the plant has fruited.
If you are removing dead wood, you can do so in the summer or winter months.
Species and Cultivars to Select
Choose a species that best suits your unique growing conditions.
There are many types to choose from that are common in home gardens, and remember to also check that your chosen species is not considered invasive in your area.
Measuring around eight feet in height and six feet in width at maturity, common barberry (B. vulgaris) is easily confused with the Japanese variety.
It is invasive in many parts of the United States, so be cautious about planting it if you have not first checked with your local cooperative extension.
Yellow flowers that bloom in the spring lead to red fruits in the late summer. This variety also has thorns.
Japanese barberries (B. thunbergii) are one of the most popular varieties used in landscaping and typically grows best in Zones 4-9.
Growing anywhere from three to six feet tall, plants produce bright green leaves that change to reveal shades of orange or red in autumn. Small red berries add winter interest after the leaves have fallen.
Considered invasive in some areas, be cautious about planting it if you haven’t checked first with your local extension office.
There are a few cultivars of this species you might consider.
One of these, available as one- to two-feet-tall bare root plants from Nature Hills Nursery, is ‘Admiration.’
This shrub has a bushy, compact growth habit, only reaching about two feet tall at maturity.
The smallest variety, B. thunbergii var. atropurpurea ‘Concorde,’ grows to just a foot and a half in height and width.
It produces bright purple to maroon leaves in the fall, but only when it is planted in full sun.
‘Concorde’ is available in #1 and #2 containers from Nature Hills Nursery.
‘Crimson Pygmy’ is another common Japanese cultivar that produces lovely burgundy summer and fall foliage.
A deciduous dwarf shrub, the leaves have a bronze tinge before turning completely red in the fall. It produces yellow flowers in spring and bright red berries in fall.
Most prized for its compact, bushy growth habit, this cultivar only grows to around two feet tall and three feet wide.
Wintergreen barberry (B. julianae) is an evergreen species with thorny branches. Because of this, it is best grown as a hedge or barrier where it won’t come into direct contact with passersby.
It can grow up to 10 feet tall and has dark green leaves that turn a lovely wine-red or bronze over the winter months before producing delicate yellow flowers and green foliage in the spring.
It also has purplish fruits that remain on the plant through the winter.
This shrub is a hybrid of B. julianae and B. thunbergii. Its common name is a reference to the place in which it was hybridized, in Mentor, Ohio.
Hardy in Zones 5-8, mentor barberry (B. x mentorensis) is semi-evergreen. It loses its leaves in the coldest parts of its range, and may retain its foliage late into the fall or through the winter in warmer southern regions. It tops out at about five to seven feet tall with an upright growth habit.
This shrub has leathery leaves that turn red or orange in the fall, and tiny yellow springtime flowers.
It does not produce fruit, and has sharp thorns that can help keep deer away. A typically sterile hybrid, it is a good option for growing in areas where other types of barberry are considered invasive.
Managing Pests and Disease
Barberry is a relatively healthy shrub with few known pest or disease problems.
Although these shrubs have few mammalian pests to speak of (deer hate them!) there are a few insect pests you’ll need to keep an eye out for.
These are the most common:
According to experts at the Connecticut State Agricultural Experiment Station, the barberry aphid, Rhopalosiphum berberidis, is one of the most common pests to attack this plant.
It is normally found on the leaves and sucks the sap from plants. It also leaves behind honeydew, a sticky substance that can attract ants and cause sooty mold.
Insecticidal soap is the most effective treatment for getting rid of these insects and preventing their eggs from overwintering in the soil.
This pest, Omphalocera dentosa, is typically found on the twigs and leaves of plants. It will eat the leaves voraciously, not stopping until the plant is completely defoliated.
Fortunately, severe infestations are rare – your shrub shouldn’t have too much trouble bouncing back, even from a severe infestation.
However, you can use Bt or spinosad to control infestations if you choose.
Two-Banded Japanese Weevil
For minor pest problems, you can often just shake the bugs off the plant into a bucket of soapy water.
In severe cases, you may notice that your plant’s leaves are almost completely destroyed.
If the infestation progresses this far, you will need to spray with a pyrethrin product labeled for residential use, such as Bonide Pyrethrin Garden Insect Spray, available from Nature Hills Nursery.
This can be done anytime from mid- to late summer.
Barberry shrubs are hardy, healthy plants with few disease problems to speak of. Occasionally, a susceptible plant might fall victim to one of the following diseases.
According to Marjan Kluepfel, former HGIC Horticulture Information Specialist at Clemson University, anthracnose is another disease that occasionally affects barberry plants.
Caused by species of fungi in the Colletotrichum genus, infected plants exhibit rounded brown spots on the leaves of plants.
It’s more of a cosmetic issue than anything else, but it can be prevented by planting shrubs in full sun, with plenty of room between each to allow for adequate air circulation.
If problems arise nonetheless, pruning off affected leaves can help to prevent further spread. Fungicides are rarely necessary.
Rust, particularly black stem rust, is another type of fungal disease. Caused by Puccinia graminis, evidence usually appears on the undersides of leaves in the beginning of summer.
Affected plants will exhibit vibrant orange pustules.
Consider growing a Japanese cultivar that is resistant to rust. B. thunbergii ‘BailElla’ and ‘Daybreak’ are two such options.
Verticillium wilt is a disease that affects all kinds of plants, including barberry shrubs. It causes leaves to become yellow and die back.
The soilborne fungal pathogen that’s responsible, Verticillium albo-atrum, produces spores that infect the roots of the plant and spread to the leaves and stems.
There isn’t a cure for wilt once a plant is infected, so be sure to prevent it by sanitizing your tools, and exercise caution to prevent damage to roots during the transplanting process.
Barberry bushes can be used as specimen plants, but are most often grown together in groups as hedges or foundation plantings. They can also be grown in containers.
Because many species are resistant to deer, they are grown as hedges, barriers, and even foundation plantings.
Many species also have sharp spines that make them a good choice for defensive plantings.
Quick Reference Growing Guide
|Plant Type:||Woody shrub||Flower / Foliage Color:||Yellow/green, red, orange, purple|
|Native to:||Africa, Asia, Europe, North and South America||Maintenance:||Low|
|Hardiness (USDA Zone):||3-10, depending on variety||Tolerance:||Poor soil, pollution, salt|
|Season:||All year round||Soil Type:||Loamy|
|Exposure:||Full sun to part shade||Soil pH:||6.0-7.5|
|Time to Maturity:||2+ years||Soil Drainage:||Well-draining|
|Spacing:||3-7 feet, depending on variety||Attracts:||Bees, birds|
|Planting Depth:||1/4 inch (seeds), depth of root ball (transplants)||Uses:||Foundation, hedges, containers, specimen, defensive plantings|
|Water Needs:||Low||Species:||Darwinii, dictyophylla, julianae, thunbergii, verruculosa, vulgaris|
|Common Pests:||Aphids, webworms, weevils||Common Diseases:||Anthracnose, black stem rust, verticillium wilt|
Make Beautiful Barberry the Star of the Show
If you choose to grow barberry bushes in your backyard, you’ll have a plant that captivates your attention throughout all four seasons.
Easy to grow and requiring very little care, this shrub offers interesting texture and color to the landscape.
Are you growing barberry in your garden? Let us know in the comments section below!
And if you want to read more about growing ornamental shrubs, be sure to take a look at these guides next:
- How to Grow and Care for Mock Orange (Philadelphus) Shrubs
- How to Plant and Grow Red Tip Photinia
- How to Grow Flowering Quince for Early Spring Color
© Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Product photos via Bonide and Nature Hills Nursery. Uncredited photos: Shutterstock. With additional writing and editing by Clare Groom and Allison Sidhu.