Please don’t buy, transplant or allow this nasty plant to invade our forests: Japanese barberry (called “red barberry” in nurseries) used to behave itself around here, but as is the case with many invasive plants and animals, with warming temperatures in winter they are able to thrive farther north. Now we need to gear up to fight another invasive alien, this one full of painful barbs. This plant is popular because deer don’t eat it and it makes a very effective hedge. But nurseries caution that they do not ship it to certain states. Guess whyâ€”because it is banned in more and more states, Vermont the latest and New York to follow soon, I hope!
Even so-called non-invasive cultivars of barberry are not safe to plant. Their flowers or seeds may be more or less sterile, but the pollen from the flowers will still be fertile and able to pollinate wild Japanese barberry plants. With the plants which are spreading in our hardwoods and open areas, birds and other animals eat the seeds and then deposit them with a handy pile of fertilizer at the same time. Barberry can also spread by underground roots as I have found out to my dismay. One in my woods that I did not plant is starting to spread sideways and others are sprouting up in the yard. Just cutting barberry back will not kill it. They need to be dug out, the crown of the roots burned, or herbicide used on the leaves. Every bit of root needs to be removed when dug because they will resprout.
About ten years ago there were two plants near here in maple woods where now there are two dozen, some four feet tall and beautifully bushy. Farther south they have made forests totally impassable to humans and most animals. Unfortunately, deer mice, which immature deer ticks feed on for a while, thrive under the thickets. These tiny ticks, which look like a sesame seed with legs if your eyes are good enough, also need deer as hosts to reproduce. No problem to find deer in settled areas around here now! Deer, or black-legged ticks, not the bigger dog or wood ticks, carry the very serious Lyme disease, which is just recently becoming quite common in the Adirondacks.
Ticks should be removed by grasping them as close to the skin as possible with sharp-pointed tweezers and pulling steadily until they let go. If the mouthparts are left in the victim, doctors now just disinfect the area, put a bandaid over it and give you a one pill dose of antibiotics. This makes you photosensitive but is otherwise no problem. But I was told to keep a watch out for flu symptoms or a bulls-eye rash. If you get one of those you have to take a full course of specific antibiotics and hope for the best. The nerve damage from Lyme disease can be debilitating.
Scientists at the University of Connecticut are studying what happens to the soil under Japanese barberry. It turns out that not only does the chemistry change for the worse, but earthworms thrive there. More worms may sound good to fishermen, but of course it is impossible to get near barberry without getting stabbed. And because earthworms are not native here ever since the glaciers covered this area a mile deep, our native “spring ephemerals” are at risk. Worms eat the leaf litter, the big nightcrawlers being the biggest offenders, coming up at night and pulling leaves and other vegetation down into their tunnels to eat. This leaves the ground bare, subject to erosion, and not hospitable to our native spring wild flowers which need rich leaf litter. Barberry leaves mature early in spring and also shade out the native flowers.
Spring ephemerals spring up like magic shortly after the snow disappears and before the hardwood leaves form a shady canopyâ€“the beautiful and delicate spring beauty, hepatica, trout lily, Dutchmen’s breeches, squirrel corn, violets of many kinds and colors, blue cohosh, red and painted trillium, wild ginger, toothwort, wood anemone, foamflowerâ€¦ They are one of the prime reasons I love living in the Adirondacks. Japanese barberry is not!
About the author. PROTECT board member Evelyn Greene looks for wild flowers in wild places mostly near her home in North Creek. A version of this article first appeared in her column in the News Enterprise, a Denton publication.