University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Anytime News Article

Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
Japanese barberry is an invasive plant you should not put in landscapes, and for which there are many good alternatives.  This barberry and some of its relatives tolerates shade, so establishes well in woodlands where birds drop their seeds.  There they crowd out native plants.  Several alternative plants can be used instead of barberry, or to replace it.

Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii) has been widely planted in landscapes as an alternative to the common barberry.  It is attractive, with its orange-red fall foliage and red fruit.  It is quite spiny, and with dense growth about 2 feet high and 3 feet wide, it is often used for foundation plantings or as a hedge.  Most commonly seen is the cultivar (cultivated variety) ‘Crimson Pygmy’ with its attractive dark red leaves.

Trials at Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania found cultivars with low seed production, so least invasive potential, to include ‘Concorde’, Bonanza Gold, ‘Kobold’, and Golden Nugget.  These are of little use, however, as this species is being banned in many states.

Compact, purple-leaved cultivars of weigela (Weigela florida) are good alternatives to the Japanese Barberry.  ‘Alexandra’, more usually seen as Wine and Roses, has dark purplish-burgundy leaves, deep pink flowers in early summer, and grows to 5 feet high and wide.  ‘Elvera’, most often seen as Midnight Wine, is similar to the above cultivar, only much shorter reaching 2 feet high.  ‘Minuet’ has green leaves tinged with red, pink flowers, and reaches 3 feet high and 5 feet wide.  ‘Tango’ has leaves purple on top, red flowers that are yellow on the inside, and reaches 2 to 3 feet tall.  These cultivars are hardy to USDA zone 5, sometimes into colder zone 4 as well.  Prune them after bloom, as flowers occur on the previous season’s growth.

The cultivar ‘Nikko’ of slender deutzia (Deutzia gracilis) has white flowers in late spring, green leaves in summer, and a deep burgundy fall color.  It forms a mound 3 to 4 feet high and wide.  This shrub is marginally hardy into USDA zone 4.

Diablo and Summer Wine are two great purple-leaved cultivars of common ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius).    Diablo reaches 8 to 10 feet, while Summer Wine is shorter reaching 4 to 6 feet tall.  Both have pinkish flowers in midsummer, but are mainly planted for their leaf color.  Both are quite hardy (USDA zone 3).  You may see this called eastern ninebark as it is native to the eastern states.  Ninebark is drought tolerant once established.

There are many old-fashioned or shrub roses to choose from, one even with plum-gray leaves (glauca, but also seen as rubrifolia).   Some of the newer hybrids bloom most the season, such as the popular ‘Knock Out’ series.  The latter are hardy to at least USDA zone 5 and in some cases reportedly in zone 4.  The explorer series from Canada, named after famous Canadian explorers, is quite hardy.  Similar to most shrub roses they bloom in early summer, however ‘David Thompson’ has recurrent pink blooms all season and a dense, rich background of leaves.

When looking for shrub roses, many recommend choosing ones growing on their own roots, often sold as “own root” roses.  Many roses are grafted onto vigorous wild species for various reasons including ease and speed of production.  These wild species may send up shoots or suckers which themselves can be a problem, crowding out desirable plants or producing seeds that can be invasive in natural areas. 

If dark red foliage isn’t essential, there are several other alternative shrubs you might consider for the barberry.  Winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata) is very adaptable to many soils, reaches 6 or more feet tall, and has very colorful (usually red) fall berries.  Inkberry holly (Ilex glabra) is about the same height, also adaptable to many soils, but has black fruits.  Both are native, but inkberry is less hardy (USDA zone 5).  Since berries are produced on female plants of both, you’ll need a male plant or two for pollination.

Bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica) also is hardy to zone 5, and can reach 8 feet high.  This is the plant whose light gray fruits the colonists used to make candles.  For a shorter plant more similar in size and shape to the barberry, look for the cultivar ‘Morton’ (seen also as Silver Sprite) which gets 5 feet high and 7 feet wide. 

Chokeberries (Aronia) are slow growers, reaching 6 to 10 feet high and half that wide. This native plant has an open and upright habit in landscapes, but with suckers will from a broad mound.  This plant will tolerate occasionally wet soils, and once established will tolerate drought.  It is hardy in most of the north (USDA zone 4 and warmer).

The species of red chokeberry has white flowers in spring, red fruit in fall, and red to reddish purple leaves in fall.  A couple choice and related cultivars to consider are the lower ‘Autumn Magic’ with black fruit, and ‘Viking’ with purple fruits high in vitamins.

All these shrubs prefer full sun, although most except the weigela and roses will tolerate part shade.  They are carefree, and low maintenance alternatives to the Japanese barberry, providing a similar landscape effect and use.

Return to Perry's Perennial Pages, Articles uvmext logo