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Slow and Steady
Barberry is a hardy shrub that grows slowly and steadily even in extreme climate and soil conditions. Armed with thorns and reaching a height of up 10 feet, barberry bushes produce clusters of yellow flowers and a multitude of red berries, which are about 1/2-inch in length with a curved oblong shape. About 90 percent of the seeds in these berries successfully germinate, creating new barberry bushes.
Desirable Hedge or Exotic Invader?
Barberry bushes display a uniform growth rate and they have little need for maintenance. As a result, gardeners often plant barberry bushes as hedges. This popular ornamental is sold at nurseries throughout the United States.
But barberry has been the subject of eradication programs because certain strains of it harbor a wheat disease called black stem rust. Barberry also is officially listed as an exotic invader in 20 states because of the threat that this bush poses to natural areas. Birds and small animals frequently disperse barberry seeds in forests, wetlands and meadows. With their high germination rate and a stubborn ability to tolerate sun or shade, barberry plants soon form dense stands that displace native plants and reduce wildlife habitat.
Ancient Egyptians were the first to use the alkaloid-laden bark, root and stem of barberry bushes as medical agents. Today barberry is the most widely used homeopathic remedy for kidney pain and kidney stones. It is also used to treat gallbladder and liver disorders, as well as anemia, constipation, diarrhea and sore throats.
There is about 450 species of barberry bushes. Two of the most common include: American and Japanese barberry.
American barberry has toothed leaves. Although its berries can be used to make preserves, this strain also hosts the black stem rust wheat disease.
The smooth-leafed Japanese barberry was introduced to the United States in 1875. Twenty-one years later barberry bushes grown from these seeds were planted at the New York Botanic Garden. Today the Japanese strain is the most common barberry species.