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Japanese Barberry: More vicious than it looks!

Updated: Oct 4, 2022

Common Name : Japanese barberry

Science-y Name : Berberis thunbergii

Native or Non : Japanese barberry is non-native shrub that was introduced to the US in the 1800s. It is on the list of invasive plants for NH and other mostly northern states as well as Canada as it spreads easily and can quickly dominate growth in both wild and cultivated areas.

Characteristics : Thorns! And attractive, small, ovate (egg shaped) leaves that are some of the first to show in the spring and the last to turn colors and fall before winter. Japanese barberry shrubs grow 3-5 feet tall with long, delicate branches covered with thorns at each leaf node. In the spring the shrub will have small yellow flowers, and in the fall and winter it develops bright red berries that are attractive to birds. Japanese barberry spreads easily from seed distribution (those birds love ‘em) and their extensive and quick growing root systems that send up new shoots.

Fun Fact : The first written account for the shrub, according to citations on the USDA Fire Effects Information System (FEIS), states “Japanese barberry seeds were received at the Arnold Arboretum in Boston around 1875 and from there were distributed for cultivation in the United States”. The Japanese variety was introduced as a substitute for European barberry, which is prone to black stem rust. Black stem rust also affects wheat crops, a valuable US export even during colonial times, and people wanted an ornamental alternative for planting. There was a whole public campaign to get rid of the common barberry as well. The American Phytopathological Society has a great piece about the campaign on their site.

Berries of the Japanese barberry are edible when prepared appropriately. We really can’t recommend adding them to your personal menu though.

Care Considerations : RAG Thyme will care for an existing Japanese barberry, but will not plant a new shrub because of the plant’s invasive listing. Japanese barberry can handle shaping with a trimmer, and heavy pruning/trimming to control size is done late in the fall/early winter. During the summer we will remove any dead branches to maintain the health of the shrub, as well as cut back or pull any new growth coming up from the root system to control the overall growth.

Contact us to get an estimate on RAG Thyme services for your yard and garden! We’ll help existing plants stay brilliant, or suggest alternatives with as much beauty and personality.

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