Native Ninebark – An Alternative to Barberry Bush

I don’t how it works in the part of the country you are in, but here in Georgia Japanese barberry Berberis is landscapers candy and they use it by the truckload. It’s everywhere. You see it in residential gardens, shopping center landscapes, industrial and office parks. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it is the color as the red foliage can certainly be valuable in a landscape design or the fact that it is drought tolerant.

Yes it is easy to grow and keep alive, but not easy to keep looking good. And it’s not a great plant. It is frequently over pruned into hedges until it becomes woody with thin foliage, so it looks like rat’s fanny. It also has nasty thorns which become leaf litter traps – try cleaning up a row of barberry and you will know how unfriendly it is. This deciduous shrub does not look good in winter no matter how healthy. Barberry is also invasive, which should be enough of a reason to seek out an environmentally friendly native alternative. See: PCA Alien Plant Working Group – Japanese Barberry

My favorite shrub to use in place of barberry is the ninebark family Physocarpus opulifolius. It is similar to barberry in several ways: ninebark forms a low maintenance, vase shape shrub, can take sun or shade, has attractive berries and is drought tolerant. Cultivars are available in burgundy colored foliage for those who are looking these shades in particular. Ninebark blooms are much showier than a barberry, the bark exfoliates and provides winter interest, plus it wildlife and environmentally friendly.

In spring the flowers attract pollinators, then in fall birds will eat the berries. Finches in particular seem to like them. The environmentally friendly part is important as well. When they have seeded,the ninebark cultivars in my garden have reverted to species. I consider this a big plus as I would rather see ninebark growing in my woods than the barberry I am constantly pulling up – and I don’t even have barberry planted with intent on my property. Ninebark has not taken over, barberry has.

A personal favorite of the cultivars is ‘Diabolo’ Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Monlo’. It is a larger ninebark at 6′ – 8′ tall. ‘Diabolo’ has stunning, deep wine red foliage when grown in the sun. In shade the leaves will take on more green. A lot more green in truth, so plant them in a sunny area. Flower are in flat topped clusters of deep pink buds which open to light pinkish white and they are lovely. ‘Diabolo’ looks fantastic when alternated with American Beautyberry Callicarpa americana. I maintained a hedge of ‘Diabolo’ and beautyberry along an open woodland path and it has always been a bird hot spot on my property. There was food and coverage for all manner of critters, and it was no maintenance aside from an annual thinning of older branches.

 

coppertina ninebark

‘Coppertina’ Ninebark

Another of the larger cultivars is ‘Copertina’ Physocarpus opulifolious ‘Mindia’. The photo does not do it justice – new foliage is a beautiful coppery orange and has ‘pop’ in a landscape. It is one of those plants which looks great in a night garden as it picks up the light. I have not had as great luck with ‘Copertina’ myself but perhaps someone can comment on their experience. I found it to be weaker than the ‘Diabolo’ and had powdery mildew on one. It was not enough to damage the plant or take away from it’s beauty, however powdery mildew just isn’t something I see in my dry oak woodland garden and I haven’t quite seemed to have forgiven ‘Copertina’ for getting even the slightest touch. Overall it still looked fantastic so I should be more lenient. Other gardening friends have grown it with success and wouldn’t give it up for anything. ‘Copertina’ tends to be a bit smaller than the other ninebarks and has topped out at 6′ for me.

 

little devil ninebark

‘Little Devil’ Ninebark

My new love is ‘Little Devil’ Physocarpus opulifolious. Finally a dwarf native ninebark for small landscapes or accents. At 3′ – 4′ this can be used as walkway borders or in perennial beds. It has the dark wine red leaves which people seem to want and after a year of watching it grow, so far so good. In part shade it has kept it’s red foliage and the thrashers and towhees love to search for food under it. Pollinators were on the flowers, and we shall soon see what the birds think of the berries. Hopefully it will remain a dwarf, only time will tell.

Another smaller form is ‘Darts Gold’ with chartreuse leaves at 4′ – 6′, however I have no experience with this one.

 

Physocarpus opulifolius spp.

Physocarpus opulifolius spp.

Then there is the best of the bunch, plain old species ninebark.  It’s a big girl, mine are at 9′ and I love it. This is the perfect plant for a wildlife garden. The tangled branches are great wildlife coverage and birds are constantly flitting in and out. If you have the space and don’t need the red color, species is the way to go. For me it has been pest and trouble free.

While the above mentioned cultivars may have the usual arguments against using cultivars, when a landscaper pulls into the nursery and asks for 20-50 barberry or nandina because they want a red leaved plant, I am going to try and talk them into using ninebark instead. I would love to drive down the road and see office buildings landscaped with wine colored ninebark over a Japanese barberry any day. Later when I walk down the greenway with my dogs, I would be happy if ninebark has seeded in the woods instead of the understory being packed with Japanese barberry – you know, anywhere barberry can find space under the Chinese privit.

For homeowners who are considering barberry for their residential landscape, please look at ninebark as an alternative. It’s an attractive, low maintenance plant which will benefit our environment. Every yard counts. It also does not have those wretched thorns to bite you when you are doing spring garden cleaning. You’ll be grateful enough for that alone to make ninebark the better choice.

 

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Comments

  1. says

    Wow. . .I didn’t know there are so many ninebark varieties; thank you for this information. Here (Duluth, MN) we have 2 Diablos, planted just last summer. They were covered with blossoms in early summer, and the blossoms were covered with butterflies.

    We also planted two nannyberries next to the ninebarks last summer. The nannyberries have been browsed by deer, necessitating periodic spraying with “Deer Off,” but the deer have completely ignored the ninebarks. I’m very happy with them.

    • says

      It’s good to know that ninebark works well in other zones. Georgia is not exactly middle of the road, so sometimes what I love is not possible further north. Nannyberry is one I like quite a bit but can not grow! I bet they look great together, minus the deer munching.

  2. says

    Karyl,

    What a great post. I too think Ninebark is a great choice for residential designs. I always try to make room for the straight species where that is feasible, but the Ninebark cultivars can be great choices. And the different cultivars blend well together in a mixed hedge too, if you organize the heights right.

    On an academic level, I find the incestuous nature of the cultivars’ parentage interesting. I made a family tree to help keep them straight (so to speak).

    http://rolandparknative.org/blog/a-family-tree-of-ninebark-cultivars/

    Vince
    Vincent Vizachero recently posted..A Family Tree of Ninebark Cultivars

    • says

      Nice chart! I wasn’t aware of this information. I have heard good things about ‘Summer Wine’ but haven’t tried it. Straight species will always be my favorite and was great when I had more land, but now I am on a smaller property and don’t have room. I am glad that I have options. I am sure the wines and ‘Dart’s Gold’ would make a stunning hedge, if a bit loud on the eyeballs. :)

  3. says

    For the front landscape I went with 3 Diablo….They do get a bit of mildew but that may be because they have grown so big together…we have pruned them to let in air…oh and our deer love them when new growth comes in spring…so do the pollinators and birds…we have bird nests this year….I am pleased to see the smaller cultivars and I should really plant a species or 2 where there is room…I agree that sometimes it is the lesser of 2 evils especially where an invasive is the alternative. My ninebark have not seeded at all but perhaps they will….now my red twig dogwood that’s another story…I find them volunteering all over little buggers….
    Donna@Gardens Eye View recently posted..Patience

    • says

      The ‘Little decil’ seems to be quite hardy and I am happy with it. It does fit in nicely in smaller spots. One thing I should have pointed out – the leaves are smaller than larger cultivars – they are tiny. It does have that lovely pink tint to the buds like ‘Diabolo’ and butterflies love it.

  4. says

    Beautiful! I just ripped out a Barberry inherited when we bought our home – boy, that felt good – or not because of the awful barbs. It is everywhere here, too. I hate it. I used to have Coppertina (wow) but it suffered from powdery mildew to the point where I ripped it out but it did go to seed and now I know why it isn’t Coppertina! I now have a species Ninebark without powdery mildew. I’ll take it! I really do like these shrubs! Wonderful recommendation, and a great alternative. I almost think paving would even be a better alternative to Barberry.
    thevioletfern recently posted..Five, Six, Seven Picks for Diana!

  5. Angela Bryant says

    Thank you for your post. Yes, we planted physocarpus opulifolius ‘Monlo’ many years ago in a full sun long border and love the seasonal beauty and very minimal care it needs. We have it inside the fence because our deer here eat most everything this time of year (except the barberry and ceanothus).

    • says

      It’s a great plant. I’d love to see it get more use, and yes, it is so low maintenance! Do deer eat it? I don’t have deer issues, but always assume deer will eat anything if they are hungry.

  6. Lisa Roemer says

    Love my Coppertina! Haven’t had any problems with it since about the first year when a heavy snowfall broke it in a few places. I pruned it back and thought “well, this isn’t gonna make it”, but it came back beautifully. It is huge now, never mildewed, and the birds love it! I will be getting more ninebark and am glad to know of the different varieties. Thanks!

    • says

      Good to know about the Copertina. I may try that one again – the color is beautiful – only in a more sunny location. I suspect the mildew is all about location with this plant. Three of my Diabolo once had a large tree fall on them and get broken to the ground – all three came back like gangbusters. I thought they were gone but nope. :)

    • says

      Supposedly they do, but I tend to be reserved about stating birds eat anything unless it happens in my garden. Too many plants you read attract birds yet they do not. In my yard the finches seem to like the seeds but only after a frost. I have read that thrashers and jays also enjoy them but this is not something I have witnessed. My berries disappear so someone eats them! The biggest advantage I have had with ninebark for birds is the coverage. They seem to be particularly fond of my shrubs and there is always someone flying in and out. It has also been a great spot for nesting.
      Karyl Seppala recently posted..Mayhaw Crataegus – Small Wildlife Friendly, Ornamental Tree

  7. says

    “looks like rat’s fanny” HA! you made my day!

    As for ninebark, looks like we in Central Florida just need to dream about it. It is shown for one small county in the panhandle and is listed as endangered-state.

    On a good note, barberry doesn’t seem to grow here either.

    Lovely pictures!
    Loret T. Setters recently posted..It Just Never Goes Away

  8. says

    Great post about a great plant, Karyl! I also have Diablo which has a reversion to the straight species which has a section that reverted to the species (green) and with more flowers and berries. Also grow the chartreuse – either Little Nugget or Dart’s Gold – not sure which – and it is a favorite – leafs out early in spring with bright foliage, holds it in heat – tough as nails. Love the idea of Diablo with callicarpa! Am currently trying a variegated callicarpa – there is almost no end to the fun with woody plants!

    Most clients don’t know ninebark at all so it can be a hard sell but worth it – thanks for the great article!

    • says

      How is the variegated callicarpa working out so far? I have a general mistrust of variegated plants but it would be nice if a callicarpa worked out. People LOVE variegated at the nursery – I may not always like a cultivar but I am always delighted when a customer takes home natives over aliens.

      Hopefully we can get the word out about great natives like ninebark and it won’t be such a hard sell.
      Karyl Seppala recently posted..Black Carpenter Bee

  9. siouxellen says

    Thanks for the great post! Just put in Diabolo up here in Michigan earlier this summer and it is already thriving.Mixed it in with Northern Sea Oats and the contrast is nice. I have 5 more barberis to dig up. (ugh!) Since we’ve started replacing with natives, our yard is teeming with every kind of wildlife. Can’t wait until the Ninebark blossoms next Spring!!

    • says

      It is funny how well planting natives works for wildlife. It makes sense of course but once you start the change is more than you expect. I have had the same experience in a new house this year, digging up and replacing. This year I have so much more living in my yard than last. Hope you love your ninebark as much as I do, it’s sooo easy to grow!

      • Siouxellen says

        We had a deer incident, where the top shoots were damaged this summer. But, it turned out to be a good thing. Was like pruning it, and it developed more fullness closer in. Have since used a few bars of Irish Spring and the deer won’t touch it! That stuff is better than Deer Off!

  10. plantmaven says

    I removed two barberry from the front of our house. Replaced them with plethora ruby spice and 16 candles. The bees love them and they are so fragrant. I have 6 Diablo ninebark also. I plant only natives and there are so many wonderful shrubs such as spice shrub and button bush (zone 5). I love beautybush but it won’t grow in zone 5 as far as I know. Such a striking purple berry cluster.

    • says

      Clethra is a wonderful shrub. I love mine! Spicebush is one I have yet to locate and think that I will probably have to break down and mail order it. There are indeed so many better choices than barberry, it’s really nice to see people turning away from it. Barberry is all over the woods here. :(
      Karyl Seppala recently posted..Black Carpenter Bee

  11. Sadie B says

    so glad to find this website! thanks for your article; i love ninebark, especially the dark leaved varieties! unfortunately, our deer here (and now, rabbits!) decimate them so we can only plant them in fenced areas. i work in lots of commercial gardens – no fences. we have little choice of plant materials, even if we use deer spray. i often wonder about the damage surfactants in deer sprays might do to habitat through trans-location, especially on waterfront sites. i don’t think it’s good for the plants to repeatedly coat their leaves with this stuff, no matter how “organic.”

    so what plants can we landscapers use? i want to make the switch to non-invasive natives for biodiversity. this article, and others on this site, have convinced me – plus seeing destruction of our local wetlands by the commercial building industry. how to be instrumental in getting our county gov’t to also move toward natives? i live on an island. we can ban exotic and invasive plants locally, and our nursery will obey those bans – but it’ll do no good because anyone can go to the mainland and buy them – for cheaper.i’d like to see some articles on that – how to do this switch-over. i plan to send links to some of your articles to our county officials.

    i sure wish i could grow ninebarks without having to deer spray them ~ i guess that is why barbarry is so over-used here. upon reading that barberries harbor lime disease ticks, and revert to green and spread to woodlands, i regret having bought my first barbarry ever for a commercial garden (after 30 years of landscaping). we are just THAT tired of deer and rabbits eating everything. but thanks to this article, i will never weaken to buy another.

  12. michele says

    I have a 5 year old, 7 foot, Coppertina that is the star of my backyard border. Despite this summer’s unprecedented heat & drowning amounts of rain that has decimated other plants (including powdery mildew on things previously untouched), the ninebark has provided blossoms, berries & beauty without fuss. I love it, & will be adding another this fall. I have no clue why it’s mildew-free here, since we’re humidity prone. I’m just happy it’s doing so well! Thanks for t h e great article on a great plant!

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