Barberry plants are perennial evergreen or deciduous shrubs native to Europe, temperate regions of Asia, northern Africa and North America. The stout, hardy plants are popular around the world in mild climates for their ornamental foliage and berries. Barberries are easy to grow, and they also have a variety of medicinal, culinary and practical uses.
Barberry plants can reach a maximum of 10 feet in height and are covered in dark green leaves which reach about three inches in length. Each of the leaves is lined with sharp spines to protect the plant from predators. Flowers form on long racemes that grow from the tip of the branches. The flowers are bright yellow in color and bloom during mid-spring. After the flowers have died, small red berries form, containing two seeds each.
Japanese, wintergreen and mentor are the three most common types of barberry plants. Japanese barberry is the most popular species for landscaping and is commonly grown for its persistent red berries that last into late winter. Wintergreen barberry is an evergreen species with foliage that turns bright red during the winter. Mentor barberry is a smaller deciduous variety that has long, sharp thorns and produces no berries. Numerous other barberry cultivars exist, including Aurea, Kobold, Nana and Spring Glory.
Barberry plants are used extensively as hedges because of their uniform growth rate and thick foliage. Barberry fruit is harvested in fall and used for jellies, jams, preserves and chutneys. The fruit, which tastes similar to the cranberry, can be used as a substitute in recipes that call for cranberries or rosehips. Barberry roots are used to make a yellow dye for cotton, lenin or wool. The plant is used medicinally as an astringent, antibacterial, anesthetic, sedative, uterine stimulant and anticonvulsant.
Barberry plants are best grown in full sun or partial shade and can survive in urban environments better than other shrubs. Watering once per week and allowing the soil to dry slightly between applications is ideal. Barberry plants benefit from an application of a 10-10-10 NPK fertilizer in spring just before new growth begins. Pruning barberry plants in mid-winter will keep them compact and aesthetically pleasing.
Barberry plants are typically not affected by pests and diseases. On rare occasions, pests such as aphids, scale and the barberry webworm may infest the plants. These pests are easily controlled using pesticides and horticultural oils. Some diseases that can affect barberry plants are anthracnose, powdery mildew and phyllosticta leaf spot. All three of these diseases are identified by spots on the foliage. Treatment consists of burning the affected leaves or removing the entire plant when necessary.