Another Invasive Thug: Pull Out that Barberry

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Communities / Sep. 7, 2017 9:06am EDT


Originally brought to the U.S. in the 1800s as an ornamental plant, barberry is now an invasive pest that can be found in many different habitats. (Provided) Originally brought to the U.S. in the 1800s as an ornamental plant, barberry is now an invasive pest that can be found in many different habitats. (Provided) If you want to keep controlling invasive plants all year round, barberry is a great one to take on.

Barberry was brought to the U.S. in the 1800s, mainly for use as an ornamental and a hedgerow planting. Before long, it escaped from gardens and is now found across the landscape. It can form dense thickets in many different habitats. Unfortunately, barberry is associated with a higher density of deer ticks, which are known to transmit Lyme disease.

Barberry seeds can be spread far and wide by birds and animals alike. Cows have even been known to eat this plant—thorns and all. Since a mature shrub can have thousands of berries, even a single plant can produce many offspring in a short time.

Deer prefer native vegetation and will eat around the barberry, which gives it a competitive advantage as it remains untouched. Dense infestations of barberry can even prevent new forest tree seedlings from regenerating.

So what can the average person do about this invasive plant? Fortunately, there are ways to keep barberry under control and even get rid of it entirely. It’s easy to identify right now, as its bright red berries stand out in the winter landscape. Still hanging onto the plant late into the winter, the fleshy berries are oval-shaped, hanging in clusters from arching branches that, when you look closely, have slender thorns. In spring, barberry is one of the first shrubs to leaf out, and will produce hanging clusters of small yellow flowers.

The first thing you can do is to remove the berries from the bush and dispose of them so they will never be able to sprout. Hold a garbage bag underneath and, wearing thick gloves, squeeze and pull your hand along the length of each branch, pulling the berries off as you go. If this is as far as you get, you can still congratulate yourself for preventing this year’s seeds from sprouting. Otherwise, flag the bush so you can come back when the ground thaws and remove the plant.

Pullem Out

While professional methods of control include herbicide and even flame torching, the easiest method for a homeowner to eliminate barberry is by pulling it out. You may be able to pull out seedlings, or dig out larger shrubs. Tough cases can be conquered with a weed wrench or honeysuckle popper.

Waiting for a day with moist soil will make the pulling easier. Make sure to dig out all the roots, as they tend to re-sprout. Tip the shrub up so that the roots are not touching the ground and won’t re-root. Lastly, plan on checking on your handiwork for a number of years. Barberry seeds will remain in the soil, and you’ll want to pull new seedlings out along with any root sprouts.

Now that you’ve got a hole in your landscape, what should you do with it? When in doubt, always plant native plants. They aren’t invasive, they are better for wildlife, just as beautiful to look at, and won’t interfere with tree seedling regeneration.

Native Alternatives

Some great alternatives to barberry include winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata), lowbush blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium), highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum), highbush cranberry (Viburnum opulus), dogwoods (Cornus alternifolia, C. amomum, C. racemosa), elderberries (Sambucus canadensis and S. racemosa), spicebush (Lindera benzoin), serviceberry (Amelanchier sp.) and witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana).

Many other options can be found at an interactive Audubon website, which suggests native alternatives based on your zip code. Try visiting audubon.org/plantsforbirds, or talk to the experts at your local nursery and ask for native plants.

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