Barberry shrubs are excellent hardy landscape plants that thrive with minimal care and maintenance. They come in many shapes, sizes and colors and can be evergreen (foliage all year) or deciduous (leaves drop in winter). The three main types of barberry shrub are red-leaved, gold-leaved and green-leaved (evergreen). A number of barberry relatives also make beautiful landscape specimens.
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Red-Leaved Barberry Shrubs
The most commonly grown barberry shrubs are the red-leaved deciduous varieties. Red-leaved barberry shrubs are varieties of the Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii). There are large shrubs ('Atropurpurea'), small shrubs ('Crimson Pygmy') and many types in between. 'Rose Glow' is a variegated form with red foliage accentuated by cream and pink swirls. Columnar forms such as 'Helmond Pillar' have also recently become available. While the red-leaved Japanese barberry shrubs make excellent landscape plants, they are also considered invasive in some parts of the country, so check with your local nursery to find out if they should be planted in your area.
Gold-leaved Barberry Shrubs
Gold-leaved barberry shrubs are also varieties of the deciduous Japanese barberry, but have lime-green to bright-gold foliage. There is a lot of variation in this group, and colors can change throughout the season as the plant grows. While all of the Japanese barberry shrubs have small reddish spring flowers, they stand out particularly nicely against the gold foliage of this group. Some popular gold-leaved varieties include 'Aurea' and 'Gold Nugget'. While still very hardy, gold-leaved varieties can burn in the hot sun and benefit from light shade.
Green-Leaved Barberry Shrubs
Green-leaved barberry shrubs are most often evergreen species, although a few rarely grown deciduous species do exist. Evergreen (and semievergreen) barberry shrubs tend to have much larger and more numerous thorns than their deciduous relatives, and make effective shrubs for privacy and natural barriers. Some of the more common green-leaved barberry shrubs include the warty barberry, William Penn barberry and wintergreen barberry. Evergreen barberry shrubs are not considered to be invasive like some of the Japanese barberry varieties.
Mahonias: The Other Barberry Shrubs
The barberry family is very large, and includes many excellent landscape shrubs. The most closely related group (which some are now grouping with the barberry shrubs) are the Mahonias, which includes the Oregon grape. Numerous types of Oregon grape exist, but overall they are small to medium evergreen shrubs with beautiful yellow flowers and edible blue fruit. A few larger (15 feet plus) types of Mahonias exist, but these are primarily grown in more temperate climates due to their lower cold tolerance.