Japanese Barberry

Photo copyright Mike Lubchenko

Many areas of Angle Fly are infested with densely packed, spiny shrubs known as Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii). This time of year its arching branches are decorated with attractive, dangling red berries which add a spot of color to the late winter landscape. But don’t let this non-native put one over on you. It creates many serious problems as it takes over great patches of our woodlands.

Most visibly, Japanese barberry displaces native plants and reduces habitat for many species. It is one of the first plants to put out leaves in early spring. Not visible is that it alters the chemical make-up of the soil, essentially conducting chemical warfare on other species. Growing around reservoirs, it contributes to reduced water quality as the degraded ecosystem it creates is prone to soil erosion.

Barberry, deer and the ticks that spread Lyme disease form an unfortunate team. Deer shun barberry, preferring to eat native species. That keeps the competition down, giving barberry an additional competitive advantage. In turn, barberry offers ticks ideal habitat while the deer provide transportation. Five years of research conducted at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station Research Foundation indicates that barberry thickets are tick havens, with up to 67% more ticks than found in areas free of barberry.

Unfortunately, some of these same qualities make barberry a shrub of choice for gardeners, and many varieties are sold by local nurseries and mail order. But please don’t plant it, as the seeds are readily spread far beyond our gardens by birds.

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