Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii) is a hardy deciduous shrub with a multi-stemmed growing habit. Known for having good year-round appeal, it's often grown as a landscape plant even though it's considered invasive in some regions. Japanese barberry spreads both by creeping roots and self-seeding, largely through the help of birds that scatter the berries. These shrubs have a rounded growth habit and mature at around 5 feet tall and wide. They sport green leaves and pale yellow flowers that bloom in mid-spring. The leaves turn to attractive shades of red, orange, purple, and yellow in the fall. They also have sharp thorns and red, oblong berries that last well into the colder months and thus are valued for the winter interest they provide. The shrubs have a slow to average growth rate, gaining around 1 to 2 feet per year. Normally purchased as a potted nursery plant, Japanese barberry is best planted in the fall, late winter, or after flowering in the spring.
Barberry is considered a mildly toxic plant for humans, causing digestive upset if plant parts are consumed and dermatitis reactions if the plant is handled. While it is not included on official lists of plants toxic to pets, this may be because the thorny stems make consumption very unlikely. The berberine contained by the plant parts is known to cause cardiac symptoms if consumed in large quantities, so it is wise to not grow this plant if you have pets prone to chewing on painfully thorny stems.
|Common Name||Japanese barberry|
|Botanical Name||Berberis thunbergii|
|Mature Size||3–6 ft. tall, 4–7 ft. wide|
|Soil pH||Acidic, neutral|
|Hardiness Zones||4–8 (USDA)|
|Toxicity||Toxic to people, possibly toxic to pets|
Watch Now: How to Grow and Care for Japanese Barberry
Japanese Barberry Care
Japanese barberry is a very easy plant to grow, with few disease or pest issues. When planted in groups or as a hedgerow, space them about 3 feet apart, since they will soon fill in and make an impenetrable thorny wall. 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.
The Japanese barberry is considered an invasive species in parts of North America, especially the Midwest and Northeast, due to its tolerance for many growing conditions and ability to outcompete native plants. Check with local experts before planting this species in your area, as it may be considered a noxious weed. If you do plant Japanese barberry, it's best to keep it isolated from native areas and make efforts to control its spread.
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 per day 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 need to water your shrub only 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 new 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 very hot 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
There are several cultivars of Japanese barberry that vary in size, shape, and appearance. Some have an upright and rounded growth habit while others tend to spread out or remain rather small. Plus, some shrubs feature striking foliage colors other than the typical green of the pure species plant. Popular cultivated 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 also remains rather 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 the fact that its leaves have three colors: a rosy red that's 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.
Pruning generally isn’t essential for Japanese barberry shrubs. If you wish, you can leave them alone and only prune off dead, damaged, or diseased portions as needed. Or you can prune to obtain a specific shape or size, such as pruning to create a hedge. This more extensive pruning should take place immediately after the shrub flowers in the spring or the early summer. Avoid pruning within two months of your projected first frost date in the fall (unless you’re removing damaged portions), as this can leave the shrub vulnerable to injury or disease.
Whenever you're working with a Japanese barberry shrub, wear gloves to protect yourself from the plant's extremely sharp thorns and the skin reactions caused by contact with the plant.
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 flowers have faded. You can also take semi-hardwood cuttings in the summer. Here's how:
- Cut a 6-inch length of growth from the tip of a branch; cut below the leaf node. Remove shoots and leaves on the bottom of cutting, but leave the greenery on the top half.
- Dip the shoot and any of its nodes in rooting hormone to promote growth.
- Fill a pot with coarse sand, drench the pot 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.
- Mist the cutting with water, then cover the pot with a plastic bag to keep the cutting moist. Place the cutting in a warm location with plenty of bright indirect light.
- Monitor the cutting; if the soil dries, add a bit of water to keep it moist but not wet. Roots should appear within 21 days; tug on the plant occasionally to see if you feel any resistance from rooting.
- Once a good root system is developing, transfer the cutting into a larger container with potting soil; continue to water and grow it in a sunny location.
- In the fall, plant your new Japanese barberry plant in the landscape.
How to Grow Japanese Barberry From Seed
Considering that Japanese barberry self-seeds so freely, it's no surprise that propagating plants from seeds is an easy matter. The tiny red berries contain small seeds that can be planted in almost any growing medium. Collecting a few berries in fall and planting the seeds in pots filled with ordinary potting mix will generally produce new plants. Small plants that self-seed in the garden can also be easily dug up and transplanted into new locations.
Japanese barberry requires no special winter protection within its hardiness range.
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. Horticultural oil will also smother and kill these insects.
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, but they may be desirable as the prerequisite for the winter appeal of the bright red berries that follow. 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 too 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.
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.
How do I get rid of a Japanese barberry plant?
If you grow nervous about this plant's invasive tendencies, the best strategy is to dig up as much of the plant as possible, then monitor the area for new shoots emerging from remaining roots, as well as 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 kill all remnants of the plant.
How long does a Japanese barberry live?
These plants spread gradually 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.
Barash, Cathy Wilkinson. Prairie & Plains States Getting Started Garden Guide: Grow the Best Flowers, Shrubs, Trees, Vines & Groundcovers. Cool Springs Press, 2015