WARNING: Do NOT Plant This. Ever!

Japanese barberry. Whether or not you know its name, you’ve probably seen it before. After all, it’s one of the most widely used ornamental plants in the U.S. If you have a yard, there’s a good chance you’ve got one or more planted in it. If not, you’ve probably seen it planted as a neatly trimmed shrub outside your bank or just growing in a wild tangle at the side of the road.

Which is a BIG problem because:

1. Japanese barberry is crowding out native plants all along the eastern U.S. It’s considered so aggressive that it’s on the Plant Conservation Alliance’s “Least Wanted” list;

Japanese barberry bush at edge of road by Eve Fox, The Garden of Eating, copyright 2014

Japanese barberry bush at edge of road by Eve Fox, The Garden of Eating, copyright 2014

2. The plants alter soil pH, nitrogen levels, and biological activity in a way that attracts earthworms which, surprisingly, are not native to North America and, also surprisingly, are damaging forest ecosystems. The wormseat up the leaf litter on the forest floor, resulting in gullies, washing sediments into streams, increasing the likelihood of algae blooms, and releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere; and last but definitely not least,

3. Japanese barberry bushes provide the perfect conditions for deer (a.k.a. black legged) ticks, the primary vector for Lyme disease, a dreaded, difficult to diagnose and even harder to treat tick-borne illness that is sweeping the nation.

Adult deer (black-legged) tick, the vector for Lyme disease

Adult deer (black-legged) tick, the vector for Lyme disease

Recent studies done by the University of Connecticut and the Connecticut Agriculture and Experiment Station (CAES)found that forests infested with Japanese barberry had 12 times more deer ticks than forests that were not - 120 disease-infected ticks per acre compared with just 10 infected ticks per acre of unspoiled forest. That’s pretty darn significant!

Bullseye rash that is a symptom of Lyme disease

Bullseye rash that is a symptom of Lyme disease

The good news is that they also found that controlling Japanese barberry can cut tick populations by up to 80% which can go a long ways to reducing the number of people who develop the red bullseye rash and flu-like symptoms of Lyme disease.


So how do you stop a plant that is the botanical equivalent of The Terminator? It’s not easy but it can be done.

1. The first method is by far the easiest: DO NOT PLANT IT! You can alsoencourage others not to plant it or sell it. Just bust out that fact about the 120 Lyme disease-infected ticks vs. 10 Lyme disease-infected ticks — it will probably do the trick.

2. But once they’re growing, you have to kill them. It’s hard to do – this is a pretty tenacious plant. You can remove the bushes by pulling them out by hand which is really only possible with young plants up to three feet high. They usually come up pretty easily but be sure to wear thick gloves and protective clothing and to check thoroughly for ticks afterwards. You may also have success using a tool like a Puller Bear to yank them out. If the plants you’re pulling up have berries on them, it is best to dispose of them by burning them.

Japanese barberry berries in late fall by AnneHeathen via Flickr

Japanese barberry berries in late fall by AnneHeathen via Flickr

You can also cut them back using long-handled shears or snips (this is kind of frustrating and thorny, though). You will be able to power through a lot more barberry using a gas-powered brush wacker.

Or, if you have access to heavy machinery, you can also accomplish a lot quickly using a mini-backhoe but that requires hiring someone who knows what they’re doing and may also be rather hard on your lawn or your woods.

3. No matter how ruthlessly you cut them back, they will grow back again so you’ve gotta be prepared to beat them back when they attempt to make a repeat appearance. It seems that the most effective way to do this is to follow up with either a chemical like Roundup or with FIRE. I’m not a big fan of Roundup and its ilk so I would not recommend that method. Butproper, safe application of a propane torch can be very useful in making sure barberry gets the message that it is not wanted though it is something one should only try with proper training and while following both safety instructions and also local burn restrictions. Try to pull plants in early spring and mow, cut or torch them in late summer to ensure that they’re not able to spread their seeds.

Jeff Ward, chief scientist in the department of forestry and horticulture at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station demonstrates the use of a propane torch. (Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Ward)

Jeff Ward, chief scientist in the department of forestry and horticulture at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station demonstrates the use of a propane torch. (Photo courtesy of CAES)

4. Last but not least, you must plant something native in place of the Japanese barberry bushes you’ve removed. If you don’t, there’s a good chance that something else invasive will move in and you’ll be right back where you started.

What you plant will depend on the soil, drainage and sunlight in the area you’re dealing with but some native shrubs and bushes that may work are low or high bush blueberries which grow naturally in the acidic soil and dappled light of pine forests, New Jersey tea, creeping sumac, dwarf witchalder and Virginia sweetspire. Or consider Allegheny pachysandra, wild ginger, foam flower, phlox pilota or subulata or ferns for beautiful, native ground covers.

You can find more information about tackling this thorny problem at the links below:

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Molly D.
M. C3 years ago

Good to know... spread this message !

Yvonne Wey
Yvonne Wey3 years ago

Thank you for the interesting article

Ann Bodimeade
Ann B3 years ago

thank you for sharing

Katie D.
Katie & Bill D3 years ago

The thorn's will alert me!
Thank you

Lis T.
Elisabeth T3 years ago

Thank you for this useful information

Angela Padovani
Angie P3 years ago

Thank you. I grew up with these berries, but haven't seen them since I moved down South. Will remember in case I ever see this bush.

jan l.
jan l3 years ago

Thank you ~ i've seen these glowing red berries on bushes that have never been in our yard before. Thanks for the warning that will be heeded, today :-) blessings ~

Dale O.

Good to know, interesting to know that this plant happens to attract ticks.

Barbara S.
Barbara S3 years ago

I knew they were undesirables, but that they host deer ticks is new to me. I shall fight them even more diligently from now on.

Harriet Russell
Harriet Russell3 years ago

Thanks for the info. and tips on eradication. There are barberry plants in my yard, and I've always hated them because the thorns are so sharp...getting pricked actually makes me a bit sick, so it almost seems that they're poisoned. Now I have another reason to hate them, and perhaps be motivated to try to get rid of them.But someone must have planted them many, many years ago, and they've spread in and around other things I want to keep. It won't be easy.