Barberry: varieties, planting & care

Sarah
Sarah
Sarah
Sarah

For me plants are some of the most exciting living beings, even though they live in slow motion. They have fascinating abilities and just so much potential! That's why I studied organic farming. However, since plants are rather thin on the ground in my city, I often spend time hiking in the nearby mountains at the weekend. In the future I would love to run a farm myself.

Favourite fruit: strawberries and gooseberries
Favourite vegetable: courgettes

This beautiful woody plant with high ornamental value is very popular as a hedge. Here you can find out what you should consider when planting and caring for barberry.

red barberry leaves and fruit
Barberries are robust and easy to care for [Photo: Bozhena Melnyk/ Shutterstock.com]

Barberries, also called sour thorns because of their sour berries, belong to the barberry family (Berberidaceae) and decorate their surroundings with colourful fruits and yellow flowers, with which they attract various insects, birds and small mammals. In addition, these thorny shrubs are hardy and easy to care for, which makes them the perfect woody plant for your hedge, copse border or element in a natural garden. In this article, you will learn how best to proceed when planting and what is important in the care.

With 400 to 600 species, barberries are an extremely species-rich genus. So there is not one barberry variety, but many different ones, almost all of which are located outside Europe. In Europe, there are less than a handful of species, most are found in the Himalayas and temperate East Asian regions.

Barberry: origin and characteristics

It is unclear where exactly the barberry comes from, but it is now widespread on all continents with the exception of Australia. The common barberry (Berberis vulgaris) is native to our latitudes, although it is rarely found in the wild. The reason for this is that the common barberry is the intermediate host of a cereal fungus and was therefore almost deliberately eradicated in some places Fortunately, the population is slowly recovering, because the shrub has many useful properties. As early as the Middle Ages, barberries were used in many ways, for example the sour berries were used like vinegar and served as a lemon substitute for the poorer population. The root bark could also be used to naturally dye wool, leather or linen yellow, and it was administered as a remedy for jaundice and liver disease. However, there were also all kinds of superstitions surrounding the thorny shrub; for example, the fruits – depending on their shape – were supposed to indicate either a short, harsh winter or a long, mild one.

Barberries are small to medium shrubs, and rarely small trees, which can vary greatly in appearance depending on the species. The sour fruits vary from red to blue to dark purple and provide food for various species of birds. The hermaphrodite flowers, on the other hand, are yellow to red in all species. The fragrant flowers of common barberry are especially popular with bees and hoverflies. The barberry’s pointed spines are one to five-parted and the leaves are alternate.

oval red barberry fuits
Common barberry (Berberis vulgaris) is native to the UK [Photo: olenaa/ Shutterstock.com]

Barberry species and varieties

Finding the right plant for the garden is not always simple, because different species sometimes offer very different features. They differ, for example, in the height of growth and shape, berry colour, whether they shed their leaves in autumn or decorate the garden all year around as an evergreen shrub.

If you want to witness your barberry in bright autumn colours before it sheds its foliage over the winter, then the following varieties are possible:

  • Berberis thunbergii ‘Rose Glow’: growth height up to 150 cm, blood red foliage in spring, good winter hardiness and no special soil requirements.
  • Berberis ottawensis ‘Superba’: very hardy, height of growth 3 – 5 m, drought resistant, purple leaves.
  • Berberis thunbergii ‘Bagatelle’: dwarf form, height of growth 40 – 50 cm, blood-red leaves, shallow rooter.
branch with yellow inflorences
Barberry ‘Superba’ has lush yellow flowers [Photo: olenaa/ Shutterstock.com]

If you’d rather have an evergreen variety in your garden, then the following selection is ideal:

  • Berberis candidula ‘Jytte’: dense, compact habit; small yellow flowers in May and dark green, narrow leaves
  • Berberis buxifolia ‘Nana’: spherical shrub with growth height up to 50 cm, early flowering from April, blue-black berry colour
  • Berberis frikartii ‘Verrucandi’: pruning tolerant, small ornamental shrub; growth height up to 1.50 m; fruits black, small and elongated; rounded growth; well suited as opaque hedge

Tip: If it is important to you to plant a species native to our area, then the Berberis vulgaris, also called common barberry, is ideal. This species of origin is known for its striking red fruits and dark green leaves. The deciduous ornamental shrub reaches up to three metres in height and is robust as well as uncomplicated. Its red fruits are especially popular with birds such as the hawfinch or blackbird and can also be eaten by humans. This is a peculiarity, because the fruits of all other species are slightly poisonous and therefore cannot be eaten.

yellow potted barberry bushes
Most people buy the plant when it is young [Photo: Gorlov-KV/ Shutterstock.com]

Planting barberry

Whether as a specimen plant or hedge, barberry is usually planted as a young shrub. The next sections explain how best to proceed and what you need to bear in mind.

The perfect location

As for their location, barberries are quite unpretentious. They are even popular for planting in extreme locations such as slopes or dry, calcareous soils. Barberries are also adaptable when it comes to pH, with many varieties thriving in both acidic and alkaline soils. However, they prefer to stand on a well-drained, humus-rich and moderately moist substrate. Deciduous species also like it sunnier than their evergreen relatives, which prefer to be in off-sun and partial shade locations.

How to plant barberry

In principle, once you have received your barberry, you can plant it out all year around. However, if there is frost, you will not be able to dig into the ground with your shovel, nor will the plant be able to spread its roots, so you should choose a frost-free period. There is also a difference between bale and container goods. Container plants can be planted all year around, while baled plants can only be planted in spring or autumn. However, whether you have chosen a deciduous or an evergreen barberry also affects the time of planting. Although classically planted in the fall, it is advisable to plant an evergreen barberry in the spring, so the plant can strengthen its roots before winter. At what distance the plant is placed in the ground, depends on the species and variety. As a rule of thumb, it should be given at least half to one-third of its final growing height as a distance from the nearest plant. Once you have determined the correct distance, you can dig the planting holes. These should be at least deep enough so that the top edge of the root ball is flush with the soil surface. They should also be 1.5 times the width of the root diameter.

If you are planting a barberry hedge, it is also advisable to line up a string before digging – this way the hedge will be straighter later. If you want to make your work even easier, it is also advisable to dig a trench instead of many individual planting holes. Before you can start planting, there are still a few steps to be taken: You can enrich the excavation of the holes or trench with compost or with a natural fertiliser such as our Plantura All Purpose Plant Food. Plantura All Purpose Plant Food provides the plant with the most important nutrients through its three-month slow-release effect, without using animal ingredients such as horn or bone meal.

digging hole with spade
You need to dig a hole for the plant before planting it [Photo: Lubsan/ Shutterstock.com]

If the root ball is very dry, it can be placed in a water bath before planting. WitThis is then planted with the enriched soil. Drench the shrub well so that it is sufficiently supplied with water from the start. For container-grown plants, be sure to tear off a few roots before planting, as this will help your shrub branch out. In the case of baled plants, the bale cloth or wire baling should be opened.

Tip: If the location you have chosen tends to be dry, you can spread a layer of grass clippings, leaves or bark mulch around the ornamental shrub.

Planting barberry – a brief summary:

  • Ideal time: autumn, yet spring for evergreen varieties
  • Planting distance: half to one third of the final growth height
  • Planting hole: at least 1.5 times the volume of the root ball
  • Enrich excavated soil with compost or fertiliser such as Plantura All Purpose Plant Food
  • Cover roots with excavated soil and drench with water
  • Container plants: root tearing
  • Baled plants: open bale cloth or wire baling
  • If the site is dry, create a mulch layer
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Planting barberry as a hedge

Barberry’s sharp, long thorns make it virtually burglar-proof, making it particularly well-suited as a hedge plant. Very large species, such as large-leaf barberry (Berberis julianae), will also protect you from any prying eyes. In addition to their function as hedges, they also provide shelter, nesting opportunities and food for birds, insects and small mammals. If you want to know more about barberry as a hedge, you can read everything else in our dedicated article.

green and red barberry hedges
Fierce thorns make the hedge a tough barrier [Photo: Bernd Schmidt/ Shutterstock.com]

Plant care

Barberries are hardy and easy to care for and require little attention once established. Therefore, the care measures can also be summarised in a few sentences.

Watering and fertilising

In principle, if barberry is accustomed to the site and well rooted in the soil, it will do well without additional fertilisation. In the first few years or if you cultivate your barberry in a pot, an additional dose of compost or primarily organic fertiliser such as our Plantura All Purpose Plant Food with slow-release effect can help.

Watering barberry is only necessary in times of prolonged drought. However, if it has just been freshly planted or if your barberry is in a pot, it is advisable to regularly check whether the substrate is still sufficiently moist with your fingers.

Pruning barberry

In the first few years, it is usually not yet necessary to think about pruning. Only resort to pruning when the ornamental shrub has reached its full size and begins to get out of shape. In principle, pruning barberry every one to two years is sufficient. This is best done immediately after flowering, as it is an early bloomer. When pruning, old, diseased and withered shoots should be removed as close to the base as possible. It is important to create a balance between old and new shoots. If your shrub begins to go bald or run wild, you can also regenerate it with vigorous pruning in the spring If you have grown your barberry in the form of a hedge, you may have to use hedge trimmers more often. Most often, the hedge should be trimmed once or twice a year to maintain the desired shape.

shears pruning barberry branch
Give your barberry a trim as soon as it has finished flowering [Photo: Georgy Dzyura/ Shutterstock.com]

Propagating barberry

The easiest way to propagate barberry is with the help of cuttings. For this purpose, slightly woody shoots around 10 to 15 centimetres long, should be cut off with secateurs in summer. The cutting should then be placed in a tall container with low-nutrient growing soil, in which it can form its roots. However, the lower leaves should be removed, as this can prevent fungal infestation. Existing flower buds should also be removed, as they hinder the formation of roots. For successful propagation via cuttings, also make sure that the substrate is always kept sufficiently moist.

Is barberry poisonous or edible?

Although the red fruits of the common barberry are healthy and tasty, all other parts of the barberry are considered slightly toxic. Indeed, with the exception of the fruits, alkaloids are found throughout the plants, with the main alkaloid being berberine. This can lead to poisoning symptoms such as difficulty breathing, nosebleeds and drowsiness from ingestion of as little as half a gram. The alkaloid content is particularly high in the root bark of the barberry.

Note: The edibility of the ripe fruit in this case refers only to common barberry. All other species have poisonous berries.

red barberry jam on table
Barberry fruits make a delicious sweet and sour jam [Photo: Alyona Popik/ Shutterstock.com]

Healthy barberry: medicinal properties and use

Not only the birds look forward to the sour fruits in autumn, but delicious jam, compote or juice can also be conjured up from the berries of the common barberry. In oriental countries such as Iran, the berries are also used to refine dishes. The sweet and sour-tasting fruits, which are full of vitamin C, are harvested when they are soft and dark red. However, the core is not eaten and must be removed. For therapeutic applications, other parts of barberry are used, such as the root and root bark, in addition to the fruit. Various alkaloids are used as active ingredients in these plant parts, which are said to lower blood pressure or stimulate intestinal peristalsis and bile secretion, among other things. However, it is not advisable to make one’s own remedy from parts of barberry, since barberry, with the exception of the berries, is considered to be slightly poisonous and this can quickly lead to severe discomfort if the wrong dosage is used.

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