University of Vermont Extension
Department of Plant and Soil Science
ALTERNATIVES TO JAPANESE BARBERRY
Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension
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
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
Chokeberries (Aronia) are slow
growers, reaching 6 to 10 feet high and half that wide.
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
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