How to grow berberis
Berberis are versatile ornamental shrubs, adding colourful foliage, flowers and berries to borders, rock gardens and containers. Evergreen or deciduous and ranging from very large to dwarf shrubs, these easy to grow, spiny plants have a place in almost every garden. Here’s all you need to know to get the best from your berberis.
- Easy to grow in most soils
- Plant in sun or partial shade
- Yellow to dark orange flowers in late spring and colourful autumn berries
- Make good intruder-proof boundary hedges
- Many are good for attracting pollinating insects
- Can be pruned to keep them in shape and respond well to hard pruning
- Can be tricky to propagate – check you have the right method for your plant
All you need to know
Choosing the right berberis for you
Berberis are easy to grow in most gardens, being unfussy about soil type or
This describes how acid or alkaline soil is, and is expressed as a number between 0 and 14. Soil with a pH of 7 is neutral, an acid soil has a lower value, and an alkaline soil has a higher one. Most plants grow best in soil that’s within a specific pH range, so it’s useful to know your soil’s pH. Testing kits are easy to use and widely available in garden centres and online.
The genus is, however, large and diverse, including both deciduous and evergreen species and everything from dwarf plants to large border specimens. To help you pick a plant that will work in your garden, consider the following:
Deciduous or evergreen
Deciduous berberis lose their leaves over winter and are great because:
- They are ornamental, with many cultivars having attractive new foliage in spring and striking autumn colour.
- They tend to have the most conspicuous autumn berries.
- They can be grown in most gardens, just avoid very cold or really exposed positions as new growth can be susceptible to damage by late frosts
Evergreen berberis retain their leaves over winter and are useful because:
- They provide year-round structure and screening
- They make a good choice for secure boundary planting owing to their dense habit and spiny stems
- Their flowers are usually abundant and decorative
All berberis are good for wildlife, being attractive to pollinators and providing autumn berries for garden birds. Evergreens also provide year-round shelter for birds and invertebrates. Despite them being great for wildlife, it’s worth knowing that all parts of these plants may cause humans mild stomach upset if eaten.
Size and shape
Berberis range in size from dwarf species 30cm (1ft) tall to large border species 5m (16ft) tall, and in shape from neat mounds to strongly upright or widely sprawling shrubs.
Deciduous berberis by size
Evergreen berberis by size
- For boundary hedges, screening and security, try large, dense species like Berberis julianae and B. × stenophylla
- For small hedges and topiary balls, as alternatives to box (Buxus), grow low-growing cultivars like B. darwinii ‘Compacta’, B. thunbergii f. atropurpurea ‘Atropurpurea Nana’ AGM and B. microphylla ‘Pygmaea’
Beberis have sharp spines, making them invaluable for boundary planting where vandalism or intruders are a threat. While spines can be a drawback for many gardeners, especially those with young children, the good news is that these shrubs need little attention, so you shouldn’t be exposed to them too often.
Considering all of the above should help you narrow down which berberis is right for your garden, but if you need more help you could:
- Use the RHS Find a Plant tool and search ‘berberis’ to browse photographs and plant descriptions. Narrow your search criteria, by foliage colour, size, aspect etc., to find those best suited to your requirements
- Visit a well-stocked garden centre to see a range of different berberis in person, ideally in spring or early autumn to best judge foliage colour, flowers and berries
Buying a berberis
From garden centres
Berberis are widely sold in garden centres as container-grown plants, usually in 2-3 litre pots. There is likely to be a selection available year-round, but this will be at its fullest in spring when foliage and flower display are at their best. Many garden centres will also stock-up on evergreen species in the autumn to provide winter interest.
From mail order suppliers
Being bushy and thorny shrubs, berberis are not the easiest plants to send through the post. This means that mail order plants tend to be quite small or may have been fairly heavily pruned to avoid damage in transit.
Most are available to purchase as container-grown plants, but you will also find deciduous hedging species, like Berberis thunbergii and B. julianae, available as bare root plants between November and March. If planning a hedge, consider bulk-ordering bare root specimens as this often lowers the price per plant and avoids the use of plastic pots.
Use our RHS Find a Plant tool for stockists of your chosen berberis, filtering by those that offer a mail order service. For more help with buying a berberis, see our handy guides below:
When to plant
Container-grown berberis can be planted at any time, as long as they are watered regularly after planting. However the very best times are as follows:
Deciduous berberis between October and April when leafless and dormant, so long as the ground is not frozen or waterlogged at the time of planting.
Evergreen berberis in October/November or March/April, when warmer soil conditions aid root establishment.
If you order bare root specimens, aim to have the soil prepared in advance so they can be planted as soon as possible after delivery. Where this isn’t possible, temporarily heel them in to the ground or pot up in a container of compost to keep the roots moist.
Where to plant
Berberis are versatile shrubs and can be grown in borders, rock gardens, containers or as hedges.
Bear the following in mind when choosing a site for your plant:
- A full sun or partly shaded position is best for most species. Some will tolerate deeper shade (check the plant label) but foliage colour as well as flowering and fruiting display will be reduced
- Any moist but well-drained soil will do, just avoid sites that are prone to waterlogging
- Berberis thunbergii cultivars tend to be susceptible to scorch by late frosts in spring, so aim to site these somewhere sheltered. Golden-leaved cultivars may also scorch during the summer in a very sunny position, so avoid a south-facing aspect for these
- Allow enough space for your plant to grow into - particularly important for larger, spreading species that are hard to contain with pruning
How to plant
Preparing your soil
All berberis like a well-drained soil and won’t thrive where it is very heavy or overly wet. No special soil preparation is required, but if your soil is poor or very heavy, dig-in around one bucketful of organic matter per square metre prior to planting.
Although it can be tempting to add grit, sand or gravel to improve heavier, clay soils, you need extremely large quantities to make a noticeable difference. Digging-in organic matter, like well-rotted manure, garden compost or leafmould, not only improves structure and drainage, but boosts fertility too.
If you are planting your berberis in a container, fill this with a soil-based compost like John Innes No 3.
Our guides below take you step-by-step through planting your berberis:
Water newly-planted berberis regularly and thoroughly, especially during summer, for the first year or so while roots are establishing. After this you should only need to water during prolonged dry spells.
If drought has set in and your plant does need a drink, give it a thorough soaking once or twice a week rather than water little and often.
Berberis dislike overly wet soil so take care if using an automatic irrigation system to ensure soil is damp but not soggy.
Keep the compost in containers damp all year round – this will mean watering regularly between April and September. Remember to remove saucers from under containers over winter, to prevent pots sitting in water.
For more advice, see our handy watering guide below:
In the ground, berberis don’t need regular feeding in a reasonably fertile soil. However following hard pruning, or if you feel growth needs a boost, topdress the soil with a balanced fertiliser like Growmore at 70g per square metre (2½oz per square yard) in spring as growth commences.
Whether you feed your berberis or not, annual mulching is very beneficial, helping to improve the soil, retain moisture and smother weed growth. Spread a 5-7.5cm (2-3in) layer of organic matter, like leaf mould, garden compost or well-rotted manure, around the base of your shrub each spring, being careful not to bank it up against stems to prevent rotting.
Leaf litter at the base of these shrubs can be very sharp, concealing fallen spines, so make sure to wear thick gloves when mulching, weeding or tidying.
In containers, apply a balanced liquid feed in spring and summer according to manufacturer’s instructions.
Berberis do not need routine pruning, but pruning can be useful to control their size and shape as well as enhance foliage effect. How you prune differs depending on whether the plant is deciduous or evergreen.
As berberis are spiny shrubs, make sure to protect your eyes and wear thorn-proof gloves and clothing when pruning, as thorns can irritate skin.
Prune these in mid- to late winter when plants are leafless and dormant, removing any dead wood in mid-summer when it is more clearly distinguished.
- Remove wayward shoots from upright cultivars like ‘Helmond Pillar’ to preserve their shape
- Thin out a few of the oldest stems to ground level every few years, as this encourages new shoots bearing more vivid foliage
- You can cut back harder those cultivars with particularly bright or variegated leaves, like ‘Aurea’ and ‘Rose Glow’ AGM, to enhance the spring display
- Keep pruning to a minimum where plants are grown for autumn colour, as this is best on mature wood
- Clip B. thunbergii hedges in summer to keep them neat, though this will sacrifice berries
Other deciduous species, particularly those grown for their abundant autumn berries, need minimal pruning. However healthy, established specimens of vigorous Berberis x ottawensis f. purpurea ‘Superba’ may be coppiced to a low framework every few years to encourage brighter foliage and colourful young stems.
Prune these immediately after flowering in early to mid-summer, or alternatively in autumn or winter after fruiting to avoid sacrificing berries. Ideally use secateurs rather than shears or hedge trimmers, to selectively shorten branches.
- Most need only light shaping to remove unwanted or wayward shoots
- Berberis darwinii AGM can become very large, flowering and fruiting only at branch tips. If yours is growing in a confined space, prune annually to ensure a good display
- Clip formal hedges during summer to keep them neat, though this will sacrifice berries. Informal hedges are better pruned once in autumn or winter to shorten fruited stems
Berberis respond well to hard pruning and whole plants can be cut back to within 30cm (1ft) of ground level in late winter. Feed and mulch (see above) after pruning to encourage strong regrowth, but be prepared that hard pruning sacrifices flowers and fruit in the following growing season.
Alternatively, stagger renovation over a few years, cutting out a handful of the oldest, woodiest stems each year to encourage new, replacement shoots.
For more advice see:
Berberis can be a little tricky to propagate, with different methods recommended for different species. Whichever method is chosen, new plants usually take at least two years to begin flowering.
Berberis from cuttings
Taking cuttings allows you to grow copies of your favourite berberis – perfect if a prized plant has become old, leggy or overgrown and you don’t want to try renovation pruning.
Vigorous deciduous berberis like Berberis × ottawensis f. purpurea ‘Superba’ can be propagated by softwood cuttings in early summer. These root quickly and can be potted-up individually by early autumn.
Semi-ripe cuttings usually give the best results for other berberis and are taken in several ways between mid-summer and early autumn from deciduous and evergreen species:
- Heel cuttings are generally the most successful and can be used for a wide range of berberis species. Select healthy, 10cm (4in) long sideshoots of current season’s growth and carefully pull these so they come away from the parent plant with a sliver of bark known as a heel
- Nodal cuttings are best for strong-growing species like Berberis × stenophylla AGM. Choose pencil-thick stems that grew in the current season and cut into 15cm (6in) long sections, making the top and bottom cuts just above and below a leaf joint. Discard the soft shoot tip from the very top of the stem
- Mallet cuttings are used for thin-stemmed species like B. thunbergii and those like B. × lologensis that are difficult to root. Select healthy, 10cm (4in) long sideshoots of current season’s growth arising from last year’s stems. Cut just above and below where the sideshoot joins to create cuttings with a small piece of older wood at the base. Remove lower leaves and the soft shoot tip
Dip cuttings in rooting powder and provide bottom heat in a propagator to speed up rooting. Cuttings need protection over winter in a cold frame or unheated greenhouse and should be well-rooted by spring, when they can be potted-up individually and grown on.
For more information on these techniques, see our handy guides below:
Berberis seeds need a short period of chilling to break their dormancy so either collect seeds from ripe autumn fruits and sow immediately outside into small pots or a seedbed, or store berries somewhere cool over winter (ideally layered in sand in a secure cold frame) and sow in early spring. Given this chilling, they should germinate by early summer.
With so many cultivars widely grown, and as many species cross freely, seed-raised plants are often hybrids. While this means you are likely to see great variety in the offspring and they won’t necessarily look like the parent plants, it can be exciting and rewarding to see what appears.
For more information on growing from seed see:
Please be aware that some berberis are protected by Plant Breeder’s Rights, and you are not allowed to propagate them for sale – check your plant label for details.
Where plants are grown that are difficult to root from cuttings or do not readily produce berries, an alternative method is needed. These are generally more difficult, so if you are not an experienced gardener it may be better to buy an additional or replacement plant rather than attempt propagation.
- Mound-forming berberis like Berberis microphylla ‘Pygmaea’ can be divided in spring or autumn once they have naturally started spreading. The process is similar to dividing herbaceous perennials and each division must have a good-sized rootball to flourish
- Species that produce long, arching stems like B. × stenophylla AGM are suited to simple layering, where flexible, low-growing stems are wounded and pegged into the soil. This is most successful if carried out in spring for evergreens, and autumn or spring for deciduous species
- Graft B. × lologensis and B. trigona cultivars, which are difficult to root from cuttings, onto young B. × ottawensis using a spliced side graft in late winter. The cultivar B. × ottawensis f. purpurea ‘Superba’ can be used as a rootstock, but its vigour tends to give rise to unwanted purple suckers
For more information on these techniques see:
Berberis are generally problem-free, however young plants and cultivars of Berberis thunbergii can suffer scorching to shoot tips as a result of late spring frosts and drought during hot, dry summers. Golden-leaved cultivars are also prone to scorching from too much direct sunlight. Scorch is easily rectified with some light pruning and shouldn’t cause any long-term problems. However drought stress can also make foliage prone to powdery mildew.
Aphids can be troublesome, especially on new shoots, but the most serious pest of these shrubs is berberis sawfly. The larvae of this sawfly feed voraciously on berberis leaves and can cause severe or total defoliation. While established plants usually recover, repeated defoliation can greatly affect vigour, so it’s a good idea to try and prevent damaging infestations from taking hold.
If your berberis looks very unwell and you are not sure what is wrong, you may find the below guide helpful:
Or, if you are a member of the RHS, you can use our online gardening advice service via MyRHS.
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