Berberis (barberry) is a genus of ornamental evergreen and deciduous shrubs that includes over 400 species, the majority of which come from the temperate zones of East Asia, the remaining from North and South America.
Similar Plant Groups
It should be noted that, recently, the North American Mahonia species and in particular, the California species, should be classified as Berberis.
- In the plants described here, however, the Mahonia group with pinnate leaves and spineless branches are not included. They are described separately since most retail nurseries market them as distinct from Berberis. See their descriptions and cultivars at Mahonia.
Barberries are one of the most beautiful and useful landscape shrubs.
- Their full spectrum of autumn colors follows green foliage in spring; however, named cultivars offer striking variations in both spring and autumn colors.
- Flowers are nearly always pale yellow-to-orange; waxy berries are red-to-purple.
- Shrubs range from 1-2 ft. tall miniatures to more massive types 6 ft. high and as wide.
- All species can be used as specimen plants or as a hedge; all accept shearing and may be renewed by pruning to within a few inches of the ground.
- Spines along stems deter some gardeners; deer are not attracted.
Barberries thrive in sun or part shade, but their beautiful fall colors and berries are more prominent with full sun.
- Many species can endure extremes in temperature and grow in almost any soil, so long as it is not water-logged. In especially poor soils, plants may appreciate a light feeding of a balanced fertilizer.
- All forms are durable, disease resistant, and somewhat drought-tolerant although moderate and periodic irrigation is needed during hot summer months.
- Little maintenance is required; prune lightly in early summer after bloom to maintain shape and remove wayward branches.
The deciduous species, Berberis thunbergii (Japanese barberry) and its cultivars, are the most commonly planted. Shrubs have densely massed branches covered with small, oval and sometimes variegated leaves in various hues depending on the cultivar. Tiny clusters of bell-shaped, yellowish flowers appear along the stems in mid-spring followed by small red berries attractive to wildlife.
- Berberis thunbergii atropurpurea ‘Concorde’ is the smallest of the genus, 18 in. tall and wide. Dusky, purple-velvet leaves turn crimson in autumn when sited in full sun.
- Berberis thunbergii ‘Crimson Pygmy’ (syn. ‘Atropurpurea Nana’) changes from purplish red to brighter bronze-red in the fall. In full sun, its intense reddish color prevails all summer. At 3 x 3 ft. in maturity after several years, this easy-to-grow cultivar is among the most popular of the genus.
- Berberis thunbergii atropurpurea ‘Golden Ring’ is named for a golden edge that rings dark reddish-purple leaves in spring. Size varies from 3-5 ft. in height and width.
- Berberis thunbergiiatropurpurea ‘Helmond Pillar’ may be planted as a row to accent its upright 4-6 ft. height and narrow 2 ft. width. As such, it can establish a backdrop to a perennial border or screen an unsightly view or it may even be planted singly to simulate a post. It typically has lovely bright reddish purple leaves and seedless fruits. The parent species, Berberis thunbergia atropurpurea, is a 6-ft. deep purple shrub.
- Berberis thunbergii ‘Rose Glow’ grows 4-6 ft. tall and wide. New foliage is bronze-red to light pink, changing to deep purple and bronze as it ages. Plant in full or lightly filtered sun for best color.
A number of other species are equally attractive and useful in the garden, but not as commonly available or planted.
- Berberis darwinii is a large evergreen shrub, with golden, almost orange flowers.
- Berberis calliantha, also evergreen, is quite petite, only 2 ft. tall and 3 ft. wide.
- Berberis x stenophylla‘Corallina Compacta’ is, as its name suggests, a low-growing, compact plant with coral berries. ‘Irwinii’ is 4-5 ft. tall and narrow with an attractive, slightly twisting shape.
- Berberis wilsoniae is evergreen to 6 ft. tall and wide, often with fountain-like arching branches covered with tiny yellow flowers in summer followed by deep burgundy berries that last into winter.