The barberry bush, also known as the pepperidge bush, is a hardy perennial garden shrub characterized by its thorny branches, ornamental leaves and colorful fruit. A member of the berberis genus, barberry can be either deciduous or evergreen, depending on the variety. The shrub grows in many different parts of the world including Europe, Asia, North and South America, and Africa. Barberry was introduced to the United States in the early 1800s, and it remains a popular landscape plant today.
Covered with a gray, smooth bark, the barberry bush produces sharp spines at the joints of each branch, which contributes to its unique appearance. The shrub's flowers appear in spring at the end of its branches, either singly or in long, hanging bunches known as racemes. The blooms are typically bright yellow to orange in color. These attractive flowers are followed by brightly-colored berries that contain the plant's seeds.
Barberry also produces four to five closely-grouped leaves on each branch with sharp spines around their edges. Deciduous barberries are known for their vivid autumn color, as the leaves turn pink to deep red before finally falling. In most varieties, the leaves are green above and gray below. Some evergreen species, however, develop a brilliant white color on the undersides of the leaves, which adds to the shrub's attractiveness.
More than 450 species of barberry are known today, although only a few are commonly cultivated. Some of the most popular species include the Japanese barberry bush (Berberis thunbergii), and the golden barberry bush (Berberis thunbergii 'Aurea'). The dwarf barberry bush, a smaller version of the Japanese barberry also known as the crimson pygmy, has recently gained in popularity for its ease of care and compact form.
In the home landscape, the barberry bush requires only minimal care if provided with the proper growing location. The shrub performs best when grown in fertile, moist, well-drained soil, in an area that receives full sunlight. Barberry will tolerate partial shade if necessary, but it will grow more slowly. Pruning is necessary just after the plant flowers, or in late winter before new spring growth begins, to thin the branches and increase visual appeal. Regular fertilizing during the growing season and watering during summer dry spells will ensure barberry's continued success in the garden.
Although barberry bushes are most prized for their ornamental value, they also have culinary, medicinal and domestic uses. The shrub's berries are edible, and contain rich reserves of vitamin C, although the sharp spines on the leaves and branches make harvesting difficult. In some areas of the world, barberries are used to make jams, jellies and preserves. In a pinch, they can be used in recipes as a substitute for cranberries or rose hips.
The barberry bush has a history of medicinal use dating back thousands of years. In Indian folk medicine, the berries are used to treat diarrhea and upset stomach, increase appetite, reduce fever, and promote vigor and overall well-being. Barberry extract has been used modernly to treat skin conditions such as psoriasis, and to ease inflammation of the urinary, gastrointestinal and respiratory tracts. As a medicinal herb, barberry is available in various forms including capsules, extracts, tinctures, and ointments for topical use.