Common Name: Common barberry, European barberry
Scientific name: Berberis vulgaris
Identification: Common barberry is a medium-to-large, densely branched and thorny perennial shrub growing 6-10’ tall at maturity. Its form is often larger and more upright than Japanese barberry. Leaves are alternately arranged in clusters, are usually 1– 2” long, and are oval with toothed edges. Leaf color is generally a dull green changing to a rusty red in fall. Twigs have sharp, needle-like spines in groups of three beneath each leaf cluster. Spines are 0.5 – 0.75” in length. Flowers appear in mid spring, and are yellow, 0.5” in diameter, and hang in drooping clusters of up to 20 flowers each. Fruit appears in late summer and are bright red to purple in color, oval-to-egg shaped, and up to 0.5” long. Fruits hang in clusters of up to 20. The inner wood and roots are bright yellow in color.
Look-alikes: Common barberry looks very similar to the native plant American barberry (B. canadensis), and somewhat similar to invasive Japanese barberry (B. thunbergii). The leaves of both common and American barberry are toothed and the stems have thorns in groups of three. Japanese barberry has smooth leaves and single thorns. Common and American barberry are difficult to tell apart. The native species’ leaves are coarsely toothed along the edges with fewer than 10 teeth per leaf, while common barberry leaves are finely toothed with 20-30 teeth per leaf (Cook 2015). Within the Great Lakes basin, American barberry is only known to occur rarely in northern Indiana (Kartesz 2015).
Common barberry is reported occasionally throughout the Great Lakes region. It is reported frequently near Toronto, Ontario. Nationally, it is most commonly reported in New England.
Additional invasive species distribution data for specific Great Lakes jurisdictions are available via:
Common barberry is spread over long distances by birds, which eat the fruit. It can spread locally through vegetative growth from the root system and through local dispersal of seed by gravity.
Common barberry invades open and forested areas, including old fields, open woods and forest edges, savannas, shrub wetlands, transport and utility rights of way, and streambanks. It is fairly shade tolerant and can sometimes reach forest interiors (Gucker 2009).
Common barberry can form very dense thickets within in natural areas, both due to its large seed production and its vegetative growth habit. Common barberry can out-compete native shrubs and herbaceous plants.
Common barberry serves as an alternate host and potential spread vector for the fungal crop disease black stem rust (Puccinia graminis). Due to crop losses caused by this disease, U.S. and Canadian authorities enacted programs to eradicate common barberry in the early 20th century, one of the largest single-species plant eradication efforts in history (Peterson 2011). Common barberry plants found today occur where eradication efforts were not completely successful (Gucker 2009).
Common barberry was originally introduced to North America in the mid-17th century as a hedgerow and medicinal plant. It is no longer in commercial trade due to its status as a crop disease host.
Please see our Landscape Alternatives landing page for more information about how the WIGL Collaborative selected alternatives for each species.
|Alternatives for Common Barberry
Common name (Latin name)
|Dense, good for low hedge||Adaptable/ low maintenance||Winter-persistent fruit|
|Black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa)||✔||✔||✔|
|New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus)||✔|
|Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)
‘Nana’ RED SPRITE™
|Bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica)
‘Morton’ SILVER SPRITE™
|Ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius)||✔||✔|
|Mountain bush honeysuckle (Diervilla rivularis)||✔||✔|
|Large forthergilla (Fothergilla major)||✔|
|Boxwood (Buxus x.)
‘Glencoe’ CHICAGOLAND GREEN®, ‘Green Velvet’
|Spreading cotoneaster (Cotoneaster divaricatus)||✔||✔||✔|
|Alpine currant (Ribes alpinum)
‘Green Mound’ b
|Landscape roses (Rosa x.)||✔||✔|
|Weigela (Weigela florida)||✔||✔|
a Species is dioecious (male and female parts occur on different plants), and only female plants form fruit. The recommended cultivar is female, but will need to be paired with a male if fruit is desired.
b Only male cultivars, such as the one listed, are recommended due to improved disease resistance.
Green = native to part of the Great Lakes Basin
Yellow = native to the United States but not to the Basin
Blue = not native but not invasive
The following is a brief overview of management techniques shown to be effective on common barberry. For more detailed information on how to use these techniques, please visit our Management and Control page. For technical assistance on managing woody invasive species, please get in touch with a local cooperative invasive species management group.
Timing and spread concerns: Early detection is valuable for any invasive species control effort, but this is particularly true of common barberry, which is relatively rare in the Great Lakes region and is very difficult to control once established. Whenever possible, individual plants should be controlled before they produce fruit in order to prevent spread. If control is undertaken after plants have fruited, it is best not to remove the plants from the site to avoid spreading seed.
Physical control: Small plants are can be hand-pulled from moist soil. Physical removal of well-established plants is unlikely to be feasible without significant soil disturbance due to the large, fibrous root system. Cutting, mowing, and other practices that do not impact the root are not effective as stand-alone practices, but can be combined with herbicide treatment. Directed heating to flame girdle stems has proven an effective option for control of Japanese barberry in certain circumstances, and may also be effective on common barberry.
Chemical control and combined approaches: Cut stump and basal bark herbicide treatments are effective and can be applied throughout most of the year, outside of early spring sap flow. Foliar spray may be the most feasible control method for a large, dense infestation, and is effective when plants are actively growing, including early spring and late fall while most desirable herbaceous plants are dormant. In all cases, herbicide should be selected carefully based on site conditions, and label directions read and followed carefully.
With any treatment it will be necessary to monitor for and treat regrowth and new seedlings in subsequent years. There is more information available about the long term challenges of managing common barberry than for most woody invasive species related to the federally coordinated attempts to eradicate it to prevent the spread of crop disease. In the U.S., early efforts focused mostly on physical removal by digging, pulling and grubbing. Regrowth was common if any root fragments were left in the soil, and the soil disturbance often stimulated germination of common barberry from the seed bank. In Canada, a 20-year herbicide treatment program yielded variable results and only succeeded in eradicating the least dense populations (Gucker 2009). Managers should expect treatment of dense common barberry infestations to be a long-term commitment.
Resources on management of common barberry:
- Cook, CW. 2015. American barberry (Berberis canadensis). In: Trees, Shrubs, and Woody Vines of North Carolina.
- Gucker, CL. 2009. Berberis vulgaris. In: Fire Effects Information System. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory.
- Kartesz, JT. 2015. Berberis canadensis. In: The Biota of North America Program Taxonomic Data Center. Chapel Hill, NC.
- Peterson, PD. 2013. The barberry or bread: The public campaign to eradicate common barberry in the United States in the early 20th century. American Phytopathological Society Features.
Photo: Leslie J. Mehrhoff, UConn, via bugwood.org