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Japanese barberry

Common (European) barberry
(Berberis vulgaris)

A dense, spiny shrub, with long arching branches, reaching up to ten feet tall. Plants have 3-pronged thorns at each stem node and small bright red berries. A similar looking invasive shrub, Japanese barberry, is now more widespread and abundant.


Regulated areas of common barberry
This species is Prohibited (Red counties)

Other names for this plant include:

  • Scientific names: Berberis × ottawaensis (Schneid.), a cross between common barberry and Japanese barberry (B. thunbergerii).

Ecological threat:

  • This species was once abundant and widespread across Eastern United States; considered invasive as early as the 1700's. Because it is an alternative host to wheat rust pathogen, eradication efforts decreased its abundance on the landscape.
  • Shade tolerant, drought resistant, and adaptable to a variety of open and wooded habitats, wetlands, old fields, and disturbed areas.
  • It forms dense stands in natural habitats, dominating the forest understory by shading out native plants.
  • Spreads vegetatively though rhizomes and horizontal branches that root freely when they touch ground.
  • Birds readily eat and disperse the fruits, resulting in new infestations far from the initial source.
  • White-tailed deer avoid browsing barberry, giving it a competitive advantage.
  • Very invasive and wide-spread across Northeast, Great Lakes and the Midwest. Cultivars of a related species, Japanese barberry, are widely planted as ornamentals.

Classification in Wisconsin: Prohibited

Species Assessment Groups (SAG) were assembled to recommend a legal classification for each species considered for NR 40.


Leaves & stems: Stems are long and drooping, thus giving the shrubs an arching form. Stems nodes have single or 3-pronged thorns measuring 1-2cm in length. Older plant stems have grey shredding bark. Leaves are simple, alternate, and lanceolate or egg-shaped. Leaves turn bright shades of red, orange, and/or purple in fall.

Flowers: Flowers are perfect and yellow with 6 petals. They occur in drooping clusters of 10-20 flowers.

Fruits & seeds: Bright red berries are oval with 1-3 seeds. Berries persist on the shrubs well into winter.

Roots: Root and rhizome formation are extensive with a mass of fibrous roots. Roots are bright yellow beneath the light-brown outer skin layer. Branches root freely when they come into contact with ground.

Similar species: Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii ) is also a non-native invasive (classified as Restricted) and is widely spread across forests of northeastern United States.


Known county distribution of common barberry
Counties in WI where common barberry has been reported (as of June 2013). Both vouchered and unvouchered reports included.

Do you have common barberry in your county but it isn't shaded on the map? Send us a report.



  • Plants can be pulled out or dug up, easiest in early spring. Remove all roots and watch for resprouts. Cutting without herbicide will result in resprouting.
  • Mow or cut larger plants before seed set if not able to remove the entire plant.
  • Prescribed burns in early spring or late fall can be effective to kill seedlings. Use this method in fire-adapted communities to prevent mortality of surrounding desired vegetation.


  • Foliar spray with metsulfuron-methyl, triclopyr or glyphosate.
  • Adding a penetrating oil can be effective when used as a cut-stump treatment and basal barking.


View common barberry pictures in our photo gallery!


Sources for content:

  • Gucker, Corey L. 2009. Berberis vulgaris. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer). Available: [2013, October 23].
  • Czarapata, Elizabeth; Invasive Plants of the Upper Midwest: an illustrated guide to their identification and control. University of Wisconsin Press. 2005. Pg. 88-89

Links for More Information

Last revised: Friday May 31 2019