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Common (European) barberry

(Berberis vulgaris)

Photo of Common barberry
Photo credit: Nisa Karimi

A dense, spiny shrub with long arching branches, reaching up to ten feet tall. Plants have 3-pronged thorns at each stem node and small bright red berries.

A similar-looking invasive shrub, Japanese barberry, is now more widespread and abundant.

 Overview map of prohibited classification in WI
Prohibited (red) counties

Other names for this plant include:

  • Scientific names: Berberis × ottawaensis (Schneid.), a cross between common barberry and Japanese barberry (B. thunbergerii).

Classification in Wisconsin: Prohibited

Ecological Threat
  • This species was once abundant and widespread across the eastern United States; considered invasive as early as the 1700s. Because it is an alternative host to wheat rust pathogen, eradication efforts decreased its abundance on the landscape.
  • Shade tolerant, drought-resistant and adaptable to various open and wooded habitats, wetlands, old fields, and disturbed areas.
  • It forms dense stands in natural habitats, dominating the forest understory by shading out native plants.
  • Spreads vegetatively through rhizomes and horizontal branches that root freely when they touch the ground.
  • Birds readily eat and disperse the fruits, resulting in new infestations far from the initial source.
  • White-tailed deer avoid browsing barberry, giving it a competitive advantage.
  • Very invasive and widespread across the northeast, Great Lakes and the Midwest. Cultivars of a related species, Japanese barberry, are widely planted as ornamentals.

Leaves & stems: Stems are long and drooping, thus giving the shrubs an arching form. Stem nodes have single or 3-pronged thorns measuring 1-2 cm long. Older plant stems have grey shredding bark. Leaves are simple, alternate and lanceolate or egg-shaped. Leaves turn bright shades of red, orange and purple in fall.

Flowers: Flowers are perfect and yellow with six petals. They occur in drooping clusters of 10-20 flowers.

Fruits & seeds: Bright red berries are oval with 1-3 seeds. Berries persist on the shrubs well into winter.

Roots: Root and rhizome formation are extensive with a mass of fibrous roots. Roots are bright yellow beneath the light-brown outer skin layer. Branches root freely when they come into contact with the ground.

Similar species: Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii) is also a non-native invasive (classified as Restricted) and is widely spread across forests of the northeastern United States.

  • Plants can be pulled out or dug up, easiest in early spring. Remove all roots and watch for resprouts. Cutting without herbicide will result in resprouting.
  • Mow or cut larger plants before seed set if not able to remove the entire plant.
  • Prescribed burns in early spring or late fall can effectively kill seedlings. Use this method in fire-adapted communities to prevent the mortality of surrounding desired vegetation.
  • Foliar spray with metsulfuron-methyl, triclopyr or glyphosate.
  • Adding a penetrating oil can be effective when used as a cut-stump treatment and basal barking.
Sources for content:
  • Gucker, Corey L. 2009. Berberis vulgaris. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer). Available: [2020, February 19].
  • Czarapata, Elizabeth; Invasive Plants of the Upper Midwest: an illustrated guide to their identification and control. The University of Wisconsin Press. 2005. Pg. 88-89
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