Japanese Barberry Plant Profile

Japanese barberry with red berries covered in frost

Gert Tabak / Photolibrary / Getty Images

Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii) is a hardy deciduous shrub, meaning it drops its leaves at the end of the growing season. While it's considered an invasive species in parts of North America due to its tolerance for many growing conditions and ability to outcompete native plants, it's still commonly grow as a landscape plant.

These shrubs have a rounded growth habit and mature at around 5 feet tall and wide. They sport green leaves, along with pale yellow flowers that bloom in mid-spring. The leaves turn to 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. They're best planted in the fall, late winter, or after flowering in the spring.

Botanical Name Berberis thunbergii
Common Name Japanese barberry, Thunberg's barberry
Plant Type Deciduous shrub
Mature Size 3 to 6 feet high and 4 to 7 feet wide
Sun Exposure Full sun
Soil Type Average, dry to medium moisture, well-draining
Soil pH 6 to 7.5
Bloom Time Spring
Flower Color Light yellow
Hardiness Zones 4 to 8
Native Area Japan

How to Grow Japanese Barberry

Barberry shrubs are often used for hedges, as their sharp thorns help to create a "living fence." When planted about 3 feet apart, the shrubs fill in the gaps quickly, forming a wall of foliage. Barberry shrubs are also effective for erosion control and are among the most deer-resistant shrubs. Overall, they have few pest or disease problems.

The care for Japanese barberry is minimal, as the plant can thrive in various growing conditions. It even can tolerate urban conditions. Typically the most work you'll have to do for this shrub is keep it pruned, but even that's minimal unless you are particular about its shape or size.

Light

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.

Soil

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.

Water

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. Moreover, 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. Plus, it can struggle in very hot and humid conditions. 

Fertilizer 

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.

Pruning

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 after the shrub flowers in the spring or in 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.

Varieties 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 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 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. And 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. 
Article Sources
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  1. Japanese Barberry. University of Maryland Extension Website