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.
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.
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.
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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