The barberry that grows wild in my neighborhood “Berberis Vulgaris” is one of the first plants to leaf out in the woods and fields. In mid spring tiny yellow flowers appear on its arching stems they’re only ¼ inch wide, but if you look closely they resemble miniature roses. In fall the plant turns a brilliant red-orange and bright red berries appear; these last so long that they’re sometimes still dangling there when it’s time for the flowers. What more could you ask of an ornamental scorned because it is thorny and weedy. It’s one of the first shrubs to take over neglected fields, along with such bad company as sumac, red cedar, multiflora rose and poison ivy. Barberry is even the host of a rust disease that afflicts wheat crops in some areas it is illegal to plant it.
Nonetheless, some of the more civilized forms of barberry are popular garden specimens. Their berries and fall color make them attractive hedge plants; their thorns and dense habit make them practical ones. The most common cultivated form is Japanese barberry (Berberies thunbergii), which usually grows to about six feet and is hardy to zone 4. More compact varieties include “Aurea” a 2 foot plant with yellow foliage, “Kobold” a compact two to three foot mound that is a hardy substitute for boxwood or Japanese holly, and the very popular “Crimson Pygmy” “Little Gem” which usually stays about two feet tall and has purple red leaves all summer, especially when grown in full sun.
Several other barberries are garden worthy. Some are evergreen, such as warty barberry (B. Verruculosa), which has black berries and quite showy yellow flowers and is hardy to zone 6. Korean barberry (B.Koreana), with dangling yellow flowers and red berries, and mentor barberry (B.Mentorensis), both hardy to at least Zone 5, are thorny shrubs that make good barriers.
How to Grow
All the barberries are easy to grow in most soils and are drought tolerant. They’ll grow in sun or shade, but foliage colors are more pronounced in sun. They transplant easily and respond well to shearing, either to create a hedger or in the red leaved varieties, to produce more colorful growth. They look best in their natural arching form; however, old, overgrown plants can be thinned at the base. Shear or cut back in early spring, while the plants are dormant.