Do you know that feeling when you can’t have something for a long time, and then suddenly you get it?  Gardeners are experiencing this feeling I think when it comes to barberry, or Berberis.  I’m sure our garden centre is not alone when it comes to volume of sales of this shrub.  It’s a popular item.
Part of the reason for its recent popularity I’m sure stems from the fact that in Canada we were denied for decades an opportunity to use many types of berberis in our gardens.  The common barberry, Berberis vulgaris, is a host plant for a fungus, black stem rust, which infects wheat and other grain crops.  Common barberry was introduced into North America by European settlers and spread its way through seed across the continent.  It was popular as a hedgerow and an ornamental plant, and its berries were used to produce jellies and wine.
The relationship between barberry and black stem rust resulted in some major damage to grain crops before eradication programs were undertaken in different stages across Canada during the past century.  For decades only a very limited choice of berberis species were available, mostly evergreen types that weren’t winter hardy in most areas of the country.
The landscape began to change several years ago, thankfully.  New breeding programs and a testing program to determine which species and cultivars were susceptible to the stem rust fungus has resulted in several types of the Japanese barberry, Berberis thunbergii, being allowed entry into Canada from US nurseries.  As well, production by Canadian growers was allowed, so gardeners now have a wide range of cultivars to choose from.
The Japanese barberry is an excellent plant for our Okanagan landscapes.  It loves the sun, is winter hardy to about -30 deg. C and will tolerate drier soils once it’s established.  Most cultivars have a dense, mounding growth habit, making them excellent choices for mass plantings in large beds, as a foundation plant near the house against a hot west or south facing wall or as an accent plant combined with complimentary or contrasting companion plants.
Did I mention the thorns?  Yes, Berberis thunbergii is armed, as are most of the barberry species, with thorns.  This can make them somewhat combative when it comes to pruning, but it also means that they are ideal choices for planting in areas where you don’t want foot traffic.
Berberis can be pruned each spring to maintain a dense shape, but most of the newer varieties are compact growing anyway.  The purple varieties look outstanding when paired with yellow or grey foliage plants, or with plants that have yellow or pink blooms.
Here’s a quick overview of a few of the most popular cultivars:
‘Rose Glow’-new foliage is a mottled white and pink, over deep rose-red mature foliage. Bright red berries in fall and winter.  Bright orange-red fall colour.  Arching branches.  Slow growing to 5 ft. tall and 4 ft. wide.
‘Cherry Bomb’-compact branches, with deep crimson foliage that turns orange-red in fall.  Grows three to four feet high and wide.
‘Royal Burgundy’-rich burgundy red foliage, with bright red berries in winter.  Compact form, growing only to two feet high and three feet wide.
‘Sunsation’-similar attributes to the purple foliage varieties, but with attractive golden foliage with an orange cast that doesn’t fade in the heat.  Grows three to four feet tall and four feet wide.

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