How to Grow and Care for Japanese Barberry

barberry shrubs

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Japanese barberry is a hardy deciduous shrub that can grow up to 6 feet tall with leaves that turn to attractive shades of red, orange, purple, and yellow in the fall. It also has sharp thorns and red, oblong berries that last well into the colder months. It grows best when planted in the fall, late winter, or after flowering in the spring. It prefers full sun and well-draining soil. It's drought and cold-tolerant, although it could use some sheltering from strong winds. It's listed as invasive in 20 states in the Midwest and the eastern United States. Japanese barberry is mildly toxic to humans.

Common Name Japanese barberry
Botanical Name Berberis thunbergii
Family Berberidaceae
Plant Type Shrub
Mature Size 3–6 ft. tall, 4–7 ft. wide
Sun Exposure Full
Soil Type Well-drained
Soil pH Acidic, neutral
Bloom Time Spring
Flower Color Yellow
Hardiness Zones 4–8 (USDA)
Native Area Asia
Toxicity Toxic to people

Watch Now: How to Grow and Care for Japanese Barberry

Characteristics of Japanese Barberry

Known for having good year-round appeal, Japanese Barberry is often grown as a landscape plant, even though it's considered invasive in many states in the United States. These shrubs have a rounded growth habit and are fully grown when 5 to 6 feet tall and wide. The shrubs have a slow or average growth rate, gaining about 1 to 2 feet annually. Japanese barberry spreads by creeping roots and seeds that self-seed, mainly through the help of birds that eat the berries.

This shrub sports green leaves and pale yellow flowers that bloom in mid spring. The leaves turn beautiful autumnal colors before their deciduous leaves drop in the fall. Its berries are valued by foraging birds in the winter and provide excellent visual interest during the cold, dormant months. Its sharp thorns are a deterrent for deer.

Japanese Barberry Care

Here are the main care requirements for growing a Japanese barberry shrub:

  • Plant it in groups or as a hedge row; space them about 3 feet apart since they will soon fill in and make an impenetrable thorny wall.
  • Place it in full sun; it tolerates partial shade.
  • Needs average, well-draining soil, rarely needing fertilizer unless very poor soil.
  • Resists cold, drought, and deer, although it requires some wind protection.


Japanese barberry is considered an invasive species in the Midwest and Northeast. It tolerates many growing conditions and can outcompete native plants. Check with local experts before planting this species in your area. If you plant it, it's best to keep it isolated from native plants and control its spread. Research also shows that this invasive plant provides a prime environment for deer ticks that spread Lyme Disease.

closeup of Japanese barberry
The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova
Japanese barberry shrub
The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova
Japanese barberry
The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova
Japanese barberry in winter
The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova


Japanese barberry grows best in full sun. But it can tolerate some shade, especially at the warmer end of its growing zones. Around seven hours of sunlight daily is ideal for bright, lush foliage.


This shrub readily grows in average soil. It can tolerate a range of soil conditions as long as there is good drainage. Soggy soil can cause root rot.


Japanese barberry has good drought tolerance, so you’ll likely only need to water your shrub during prolonged dry periods. If the plant’s leaves are wilting or falling off during the growing season, that’s a common sign it could use some water. Give a newly planted shrub regular watering to maintain slight moisture in the soil during its first growing season. 

Temperature and Humidity

Japanese barberry can adapt to many climate conditions and does well throughout USDA growing zones 4 to 8. It has good cold tolerance but prefers to be sheltered from strong winds. It can struggle in sweltering and humid conditions. 


Fertilizing Japanese barberry is generally not necessary unless you have very poor soil. To boost plant health and vigor, you can fertilize your barberry in the late winter or early spring before flowering begins with a slow-release shrub fertilizer.

Types of Japanese Barberry

Several cultivars of Japanese barberry vary in size, shape, and appearance. Some have an upright and rounded growth habit, while others tend to spread out or remain relatively small. Plus, some shrubs feature striking foliage colors besides the typical green. Popular varieties include:

  • 'Crimson Pygmy': True to its name on both counts, this variety bears reddish-purple foliage and remains compact. It usually reaches around 2 to 3 feet tall and wide.
  • 'Aurea': This plant remains relatively short, topping out at 3 to 4 feet tall and slightly wider. It is known for its vibrant yellow foliage.
  • 'Rose Glow': This variety reaches around 5 feet tall and 4 feet wide. Its claim to fame is that its leaves have three colors: a rosy red mottled with pink and white.
  • 'Concorde': This compact, rounded shrub only reaches around 2 feet tall and wide. It features deep purple foliage that becomes even more vivid in the fall. 


Typically the most work you'll have to do for this shrub is keeping it pruned, but even that's minimal unless you are particular about its shape or size, such as creating a hedge. Pruning generally isn't essential for Japanese barberry shrubs. You can leave them alone and only prune off dead, damaged, or diseased portions as needed.

Extensive pruning should occur immediately after the spring or early summer shrub flowers. Avoid pruning within two months of your projected first frost date in the fall (unless you remove damaged portions), as this can leave the shrub vulnerable to injury or disease.


When working with a Japanese barberry shrub, wear gloves to protect yourself from the plant's extremely sharp thorns.

Propagating Japanese Barberry

It's easy to propagate Japanese barberry with cuttings, the preferred method over the more challenging way of growing from seeds. Take cuttings in the spring after the flowers have faded. You can also take semi-hardwood cuttings in the summer. Here's how:

  1. Cut a 6-inch length of growth from the tip of a branch; cut below the leaf node.
  2. Remove shoots and leaves on the bottom of the cutting, but leave the greenery on the top half.
  3. Dip the shoot and any of its nodes in the rooting hormone to promote growth.
  4. Fill a pot with coarse sand, drench it with water, and let it drain. Once drained, plant the end of the cutting into the wet sand, but let the leaves stay above the sand.
  5. Mist the cutting with water, then cover the pot with a plastic bag to keep the cutting moist.
  6. Monitor the cutting; If the soil dries, add a bit of water, but not too much. Roots should appear within 21 days; tug on the plant to see if you feel any resistance from rooting.
  7. Once a good root system develops, transfer the cutting into a larger container with potting soil; continue to water.
  8. In the fall, plant your new Japanese barberry plant in the landscape.

How to Grow Japanese Barberry From Seed

Considering Japanese barberry self-seeds so freely, it's no surprise that propagating plants from seeds is easy. The tiny red berries contain small seeds that can be planted in almost any growing medium. Here's how to grow from seed:

  1. Collect a few berries in the late summer or early fall. Mash the berries to extract seeds.
  2. Plant the seeds in pots filled with a moistened mix of peat moss or coir and sand.
  3. Cover the pots with plastic wrap, poke a few holes in the plastic, and place in the refrigerator for up to two months to stratify the seeds. Keep the potting medium moist.
  4. Remove from the fridge and place pots in a cold frame, keep watered, and watch for germination after pots warm up.
  5. Continue growing in the cold frame until plants reach about 3 inches in height. Transplant into larger containers and place in a protected area in dappled shade after frost danger has passed.
  6. Plant them in the garden in the early fall.


Japanese barberry requires no special winter protection within its hardiness range. However, it can be prone to damage from strong winter winds. Consider sheltering it or wrapping burlap material around wooden stakes to protect it from windburn.

Common Pests & Plant Diseases

Japanese barberry shrubs are susceptible to scale insects and aphids, which will suck on the plant's juices. Dislodge large infestations of aphids with a high-pressure garden hose spray.

Although Lyme disease ticks don't invade Japanese barberry, they are attracted to it as home. Since barberry has denser foliage than most native species, the plants retain higher humidity levels which ticks need to survive. Ticks die when humidity levels drop below 80 percent and do not rise back up.

Diseases that can afflict the plant include powdery mildew, verticillium wilt, anthracnose, and bacterial leaf spots. Use fungicides for most problems, but note that wilt may be irreversible and cause the shrub to die.

How to Get Japanese Barberry to Bloom

The small yellow flowers of the Japanese barberry are not particularly showy. Still, they announce the coming of bright red berries with distinct winter appeal. When a shrub fails to bloom, it is usually because it is not receiving enough direct sunlight or because it is being over-fertilized. Severe pruning early in the growing season can also temporarily halt flower production. When pruning is necessary, it's best to do it after the season's flowers have faded or well before new spring growth begins.

Common Problems With Japanese Barberry

Japanese barberry is a straightforward plant to grow, with few disease or pest issues; however, several environmental factors can cause problems.

Sudden Death

This plant's roots are intolerant of too much fluctuation in moisture. If it's constantly dry and then soggily wet, these moisture extremes can cause sudden death to mature plants in the summer. To prevent this problem, spread a 2- to 4-inch layer of mulch over the roots and plant it in soil with organic matter to provide sufficient drainage and moisture retention.

Yellowing or Dead Spots on Lower Branches

Japanese barberry is a common plant used for hedges and borders along sidewalks. If you notice some yellowed or "burned" spots on the lower branches of Japanese barberry, it's likely dog urine damage. Japanese barberry is not immune to dog urine burn, discoloring Japanese barberry foliage and killing low branches.

  • How can I use this plant in the landscape?

    Barberry shrubs are often used for hedges or as barrier plantings, as their sharp thorns help to create a "living fence." Keep them well away from pathways to avoid injury to passers-by. Barberry shrubs are also effective for erosion control and are among the most deer-resistant shrubs.

  • How do I get rid of a Japanese barberry plant?

    If you are concerned about this plant's invasive tendencies, dig up as much of the plant as possible and monitor the area for new shoots emerging from remaining roots or volunteers that spring up from fallen seeds. Systematically dig up or kill the volunteer plants using a brush-killing herbicide. It may take a few months to destroy all remnants of the plant.

  • How long does a Japanese barberry live?

    These plants spread through underground roots, and a single plant will gradually expand into a thicket that may thrive for many decades. Individual stems, however, may become woody and overgrown and cease to produce flowers and fruit. Periodically removing these old stems will keep the plant vibrant.

  • Does Japanese barberry attract wildlife?

    A major appeal of this plant is the berries that attract birds during the winter. At the same time, the thorny stems make the plant relatively safe from damage from deer and other grazing creatures.

The Spruce uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Safe and Poisonous Garden Plants. University of California.

  2. Japanese barberry. Invasive Plant Atlas of the United States from the University of Georgia and the National Park Service.

  3. Williams SC, Linske MA, Ward JS. Long-term effects of berberis thunbergii (Ranunculales: berberidaceae) management on ixodes scapularis (Acari: ixodidae) abundance and borrelia burgdorferi (Spirochaetales: spirochaetaceae) prevalence in connecticut, usa. Environ Entomol. 2017;46(6):1329-1338.

  4. Barash, Cathy Wilkinson. Prairie & Plains States Getting Started Garden Guide: Grow the Best Flowers, Shrubs, Trees, Vines & Groundcovers. Cool Springs Press, 2015

  5. A nursery for ticks. The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.