The issue of avoiding the use of certain plants in favor of natives is a sticky one for landscapers and home gardeners alike. There are so many beautiful non-native shrubs and trees (of English, Japanese, or Chinese origin) for sale at the big box stores and local garden centers. Who could possibly say no to a plant like this, with gorgeous burgundy leaves and red berries that persist into winter?
Barberry (Berberis thunbergii) is as common now as the crape myrtle. You see it planted around fast-food restaurants, office buildings, and many other commercial settings because it is a fairly tough shrub that tolerates all kinds of weather conditions.
But beware, this shrub has more tricks than treats. Not only is Barberry known to be invasive in the northeastern U.S. (I have seen it spread in the Mid-Atlantic states as well) but researchers in Connecticut have found that Barberry is a host for ticks carrying Lyme disease. The shrub apparently attracts the white-footed mouse because of the protective cover it provides thanks to its dense habit and thorny branches. Ticks also taking shelter in Barberry then pick up the disease from the mice, and then pass it on to humans.
Between its invasive tendency and the tick issues, there’s really no reason to plant Barberry when there are plenty of native shrubs that offer the same features like good color, blooms, etc. Among my favorites are the following:
Ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius)
A graceful, arching shrub featuring burgundy/bronze colored leaves that turn a more intense color in fall, with a profusion of rounded white blooms in summer; grows slowly to about 7′ x 5′. Tolerant of heat and drought once established; full sun for best color.
Sweetspire (Itea virginica)
An upright shrub boasting slightly fragrant white flower tassels in spring (that attract bees and butterflies) followed by all shades of orange and red in fall, that rivals even that of Burning Bush. Itea thrives even in consistently wet soil; also tolerant of partial shade. Grows to 4′ by 4′
Witch Alder (Fothergilla gardenii and Fothergilla major)
An upright, rounded shrub closely related to witch hazel; fragrant bottle brush blooms in early spring, bluish green leaves through summer, turning to stunning yellows, oranges, and reds by fall. Leaves tend to persist a little later into the year than most deciduous plants. Moderate growth rate to 6′ by 6′ (tends to sucker from the roots)