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How to ID a Shrub With Thorns

Rose stem with thorns and water drops on the leaves. image by Dragan Trifunovic from

Many different species of shrubs have thorns or spines, some of which grow on their stems or branches and others that grow on their fruit husks. When you're attempting to identify a shrub with thorns, you cannot rely on the thorns alone to make an accurate identification. You'll need to study a variety of other characteristics to properly identify the shrub. The most popular shrubs with thorns that are found in the wild or in landscapes include shrubs like hawthorns, barberries, roses, wild plums, as well as raspberries and blackberries.

Identify shrubs with thorns by their size. For example, wild plum shrubs (Prunus Americana) grow 15 to 25 feet tall with short trunks, while the buffaloberry shrub (Shepherdia argentea) grows to about 10 feet tall and 8 feet wide.

Notice where the thorny shrub is growing to identify it. For example, hawthorns (Crataegus sp.) can grow in a wide variety of soil types, but they’re often found growing wild along roadsides and in rough pastures. Wild plums usually grow in moist, rich soils along stream banks or in thickets.

first snow image by Liga Lauzuma from

Study the leaves to make an identification. Hawthorns have leaves with notched edges that grow in an alternate fashion along the stems, while wild plums have 2- to 5-inch-long and 2-inch-wide, oval, narrow-pointed leaves with double-toothed edges. Buffaloberry shrubs have silver leaves that are arranged opposite each other in pairs along the stems. European barberries (Berberis vulgaris) have leaves edged in prominent, spiny teeth, while the Japanese barberry (B. thunbergii) has smooth-edged leaves.

red berries of hawthorn image by Maria Brzostowska from

Identify the shrub with thorns by looking at its fruits. Hawthorn shrubs bear 1/4- to 3/4-inch-diameter fruits that are globe-shaped or oblong, while wild plums produce 3/4-inch-wide, orange-red drupes that ripen in late summer. Buffaloberry shrubs bear fleshy, yellowish-red fruits with an inner pit.

mûres image by Claudio Calcagno from

Study the thorns to identify the shrub. Wild plum shrubs have thorns on their trunks, while buffaloberry shrubs have thorny projections on their branches. Raspberry and blackberry shrubs (Rubus spp.) have spines that separate easily from their stems.


Rose shrubs (Rosa sp.) also have thorns along their branches and stems and grow up to 10 feet tall. Although rose shrubs are easy to identify when they’re in bloom, you can identify them during other seasons by their alternately-arranged, compound leaves comprised of three to seven leaflets with toothed edges. Rose shrubs also bear red, fleshy, seedy fruits that remain on the bushes throughout winter.


Don’t confuse the European barberry shrub with the Japanese barberry. The Japanese barberry shrub has upwardly-growing branches that curve over and downward, while the European barberry shrub takes on more of a tree-like form. Also, the European barberry’s flowers hang down from its branches in long clusters, while the Japanese barberry’s flowers are singular.

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