Barberries or Berberis bonsai are not the typical or classic choice amongst bonsai growers. However, this species is easy to shape into a bonsai and can be a relevant choice for beginners. Bonsai enthusiasts who are getting started with the basics can use and handle Barberry bonsai without much hassle. This species has small leaves that can back bud with ease, and flowers in the spring. These features make it a good option for bonsai.
This article will help guide bonsai enthusiasts with tips on Berberis (Barberry) Bonsai Tree Care.
Barberry (scientific name Berberis) is a genus consisting of over 450 varieties of deciduous or evergreen shrubs ranging in height from 1 meters to 5 meters. They are generally found throughout subtropical and temperate regions all over the globe, except Australia. Berberis can be of many different types. South-America, Asia, Europe, Africa and North America, all these countries have many different types of Berberis. The most widespread Berberis species is the European Barberry (Scientific Name: Berberis Vulgaris). It is common in Europe, North Africa, Middle and Central Asia. Majority of the species have spiky shoots and leaves.
Trees belonging to the Berberis Genus have long shoots forming the structure of the plant and short shoots which are 1-2 mm long only. The leaves on the long shoots cannot do photosynthesis. The bud on the axil of each thorn/leaf develops a short shoot with several photosynthetic leaves. These photosynthetic leaves are 1-10 cm long usually with spiny margins. Leaves sprout on the long shoots only when the plants are young seedlings. The final foliage is seen when the plant is 1 to 2 years old.
Deciduous species of the Berberis Genus such as the Berberis Thunbergii and Berberis Vulgaris, have attractive pink and red colored autumn foliage. Some Chinese evergreen species such as Berberis Candidula and Berberis Verruculosa have leaves which are a brilliant shade of white underneath. Some specific types of Berberis Thunbergii have reddish foliage. Barberries have yellow or orange flowers, and small berry-like fruits which are either red or violet in color. Blooming and fruiting is a rare feature in case of bonsais.
Mostly cultivated species of barberries include –
- Berberis darwini
- Berberis julianae
- Berberis thunbergii
- Berberis dictyophylia
- Berberis verruculosa
There are also several hybrid varieties of Berberis such as Red Jewel, golden barberry and Apricot Queen.
In the case of bonsai, Berberis or Barberry is one of the easiest options available. They are not the classical subject of bonsai, but can be efficiently made into one.
How long does it take to grow Berberis Bonsai?
With Berberis Bonsai, the growth period is around 5 years. This timespan is good enough for the tree to grow a sizable amount. The berberis bonsai shrubs mature at about 5 feet height and have a rounded growth. Their shrubs have a slow growth rate on average and they gain about 1-2 feet per year. They are planted the best in late winter, fall or in spring.
Before diving into the specifics of the planting, caring and growing of Berberis, you must clear some basics. Next, we provide some basics about the ideal conditions and requirements for Berberis tree care.
Position and lighting
Berberis are deciduous shrubs and they provide coloured leaves in autumn. They also provide berries which last till winters.
Berberis Bonsai grows well in partial shade or full sun. Even at 1% less full sun, positive stem growth can occur. Its survival is quite high at intermediate to full light levels. It’s survival only drops at light levels lower to 1% of full sun. The Berberis Bonsai is frequently used as a barrier hedge because of their spines which are known to be highly vicious.
Berberis Bonsai grows in full or light sun. Thus, it grows well in high temperatures and can also remain hardy till temperatures as low as about -25 degrees Celsius.
Berberis Bonsai requires a soil within the pH range 3.7 – 6.2 which is an acidic pH range. It can thrive on loamy, clayey and sandy soil types. It can survive and grow in moisture levels anywhere from dry, moist to wet.
There is no need to water the berberis except in cases of severe drought.
Till the plants are young (for about the age of 2 years), water them if the conditions are dry.
The Berberis are known to look after themselves after they’re established. They don’t need to be fed because they are self-sufficient. However, if the soil is extremely low on nutrients then the Berberis need to be fed.
They respond brilliantly to well-rotted organic matter if it is applied in late spring. Grass cuttings and compost do fine. They become very healthy if fed twice yearly with bone,fish and blood in spring and autumn. This helps them establish a great and robust root system.
Bonsai can grow in a unique variety of styles. The Berberis Bonsai can be grown in informal forms in singular to several trunk groups. They are grown in small to medium sizes. It is suggested that you avoid the angular and stiff trunk forms.
How to Plant and Grow Berberis (Barberry) Bonsai?
You want to know how to plant and grow a Berberis bonsai. That’s great! But first, you need to know about the commonly available species of Berberis and ones that are usually recommended for bonsai.
Berberis thunbergii –
The thunbergii or Barberry have dense foliage and ovate leaves that are about 3 cm in length. The leaves of this deciduous shrub are green on top and bluish underneath. In spring, racemes of yellow flowers in numbers of 2 and 5 are produced. These are followed by red fruits in autumn. This variety is native to Japan, where it can reach a height of 1 metre. Red leaved varieties of the Berberis Thunbergii are preferred for bonsai-making. Some have variegated red leaves, which are prone to mildews.
Berberis darwinii –
This is an evergreen variety of Barberry native to Latin American countries of Chile and Argentina. They can reach up to heights of 3 metres. They have green, 3 cm long leaves which are evergreen. Orange flowers bloom in spring and are accompanied by blue-black fruits in autumn.
Berberis buxifolia –
This variety is evergreen or semi-evergreen. It sheds leaves in cold temperatures or during the winter season. Its leaves are dark green and waxy, which grow up to 2 cm in length. Orange and yellow flowers bloom in spring followed by purple fruits in autumn.
Now that you know about the popular Barberry bonsai species, it’s time to get into the specifics of how you can actually plant and grow them. Barberry bonsai seeds or saplings are ideally potted in spring.
Propagation of Berberis Bonsai Species is done with the assistance of cuttings, seeds or layering. The layering can be both Air and ground.
For propagation, seeds must be sown outside while it is early Spring season. The cuttings of softwood of roots in the case of deciduous species needs to be taken out in the summers. The semi-ripe cuttings can be taken out in summers in the case of deciduous and evergreen species. The layering can be done by air and ground layers in the Spring or Autumn Season.
Pruning and wiring
The Berberis generally starts flowering from shoots arising from two year old wood after 1 year of shoot growth. Thus, to prune we need to wait for it to flower. The new growth is then pinched back and trimmed. The Berberis buds back very readily. It is found that the Berberis is much easier to shape by pruning it than wiring. Many species have nasty thorns and are stiff. When pruned, the Berberis displays yellow inner stem, trunk and root color.
With regards to wiring, it can be done throughout the year. However, since Berberis are known to grow quickly, it is essential to check the wiring frequently. The challenge with Berberis is to get a thick trunk.
If you desire a bonsai which is singly trunked then you need to be careful about suckers. The suckers will emerge from the roots and you will need to remove them immediately before they sap.
Repotting of the Berberis bonsai needs to be done before buds burst in early spring after every 1-2 years.
They tolerate root pruning well. So half of their root mass can be removed. However, evergreen species are less tolerant and in their case only one-third of root mass needs to be removed.
How to Care for Your Berberis Bonsai?
The care requirements for Berberis is minimal since it can thrive in many different growing conditions. It can tolerate the urban conditions too. The most caring is required in pruning the shrub. But, even that is generally light work for a fixed shape and size.
Berberis need very little fertilizer while the plants and pots don’t need any fertilizer at all. In fact, barberries are very sensitive to salts and application of straight solid fertilizer can kill them. So, a very weak liquid solution is recommended.
Berberis prefer being dry although moderate watering can be done. All Berberis have fine root structures and they need frost protection if they are grown in shallow pots.
Survival is easy if there is more than 1% of full sunlight available; however below it, the survival gets extremely tough. The ideal pH range for this soil is 3.7 to 6.2. They are particularly responsive to nitrogen availability. Their productivity increases if more nitrogen is available. Increased photosynthesis was a byproduct of more nitrogen.
Pests and diseases
Barberry shrubs mostly tend to stay pest-free but you need to prevent the plant from certain pests and diseases like Sawflies, aphids, powdery mildew, verticillium wilt, and rust.