Watoga Trail Report

Seebert property owners Laura Evans and Margot Marshall point to one of several barberry plants in their meadow. K. Springer photo

The barberry ~ an invader
The rogue agent of the plant world

In an earlier issue of the Watoga Trail Report we examined a most vile plant. An invasive species that leaves only pain and grief in its wake. One with apparently no redeeming qualities unless you wish to rid your country of a troublesome philosopher.*

I am of course referring to Poison Hemlock and its less common cousin, Water Hemlock; both of which have made Pocahontas County their home in recent years.

Barberry preserves on toast, ‘an acquired taste’. K. Springer photo

We will now take a look at another invasive plant that threatens native plants and has a number of despicable features, yet is revered in some parts of the world as a culinary delicacy.

Just northeast of the TM Cheek overlook is a deep valley that contains one of Watoga’s several early homesteads. All that remains of this former home – and sometimes school – is but a pile of rocks. I recently visited the Krause Place, as it is called, with David Workman whose father was born there.

On my previous visit just a few years earlier you could easily explore the area if you didn’t mind stepping over the downed trees. Now the area is an impenetrable fortress protected by a dense and viciously spiny shrub called Japanese barberry. Without chainmail chaps, we were not going to get any closer to the old homestead than about 20 yards.

Keep in mind that this disagreeable plant is often planted below windows to dissuade burglars from making a window entry.

A couple of weeks ago, Sam Parker tipped me off that barberry is growing in the Riverside Campground. Following the encounter at the Krause Place, I developed an eye for spotting barberry. I started seeing it everywhere; my neighbor’s pasture, on my graveled road near Seebert, and even on the margins of the Greenbrier River Trail.

Alas, like poison hemlock and garlic mustard, barberry is making its presence known at the expense of our native plants.

Japanese barberry is, as the name implies, originally an ornamental landscaping shrub from Japan. It has spread throughout many parts of the world, making its way to the U.S. in 1875. It was intended to replace the common barberry, Berberis vulgaris, that is a host for black stem rust. As we now know, the barberry was not content with just playing the role of landscape shrubbery – it went rogue.

Japanese barberry has growth attributes in expanding its range that give it a definite edge over native plants. It leafs earlier in the year than most other plants and the leaves and fruit often stay on until later in the fall. Deer do not seem to eat any part of the plant and the berries outlast the migrating birds, so the seeds have a greatly improved chance of sprouting come spring.

Additionally, the stalk of the Japanese barberry has the capability of bending over to the ground and taking root, further fortifying the plant as a barrier to animals and humans. To add insult to injury the dense mat created by this plant holds moisture, attracting such creatures as the white-footed mouse and black-legged tick (deer tick) thereby increasing the incidence of Lyme Disease.

As odious as the Japanese barberry is, it does have its devotees. In Argentina, they named a town after the plant, claiming that if you eat any of the confections they make from the barberry, you will return often and, presumably, purchase more barberry treats.

World traveler and mountain climber Dr. Michael Jarosick visited this town and reports: “There is a small town in Argentine Patagonia called El Calafate, which is the name of the barberry plant in that locale. They use the berries to make jam and to flavor ice cream. I enjoyed the consumption when I was there, it is quite good. The taste is like a cross between raspberry and cranberry. I am baffled as to how they harvest berries from that hateful, prickly shrub.”

Other parts of the world also harbor a love for this naturally bitter berry. Russians are fond of candy and soft drinks flavored with barberries. One of the national dishes of Iran, Persian Pilaf, uses the berry to give the rice its unique flavor. In Europe the dried barberry is used much like dried fruit peels in baking – think of citron.

We Americans haven’t got on that culinary bandwagon yet, but it may be one strategy for controlling the barberry.

The die-hard foragers who are promoting the consumption of the barberry are making the argument that the berry is delicious and we can eradicate this pesty plant by consuming it.

I would argue that there are some major flaws in their logic.

First of all, I actually tried barberry preserves earlier this week, and all I can say is that it is an “acquired taste” to be sure.

Secondly, how and who do they propose will harvest this mediocre berry?  My puncture wounds from the trip to the Krause Place three weeks ago have still not healed. So I cannot be counted on to harvest the berries without wearing a full suit of armor.

As for the claimed health benefits of barberry, it sounds every bit like the claims of the snake oil pitchmen of the 19th century, “Come one, come all and try this elixir for all that ails you.”

One website promoting the barberry calls it a treatment for diarrhea, protection from heart disease and diabetes, promotes dental health, effective in preventing certain types of cancers including prostate cancer, and clears up acne.
It seems to do everything but mow your yard and pay your taxes.

Like many berries, barberry does contain antioxidants, is low in sugars and fat (except the sugar you will need to add to disguise the bitterness), has fiber and most of the essential minerals, and is high in Vitamin C.

The bottom line on barberries is that some studies support some of these claims. But remember, the same could be said of cranberries and your legs won’t need to look as though you have been repeatedly stabbed with an ice pick to enjoy them.

Eradication of barberry can be as simple as pulling the plant and treating it with an herbicide if there are just a few plants. A large infestation requires more aggressive methods including cutting with a forestry mower and spraying an herbicide early in the spring or late in the fall when native plants are dormant. Controlled direct burning may be required for more resistant patches of barberry.

The longer we wait to control the barberry the harder it will be to get rid of it. With some exceptions, like the Krause Place at Watoga State Park, the plants are often solitary or there are just a few plants. The intention of the barberry, if you can forgive that term, is to take over as much territory as possible.

This plant is highly efficient and well equipped to push out the native plants, so we must consider action soon. A good place to start may be the barberry plants that are scattered along the Greenbrier River Trail and the Riverside Campground – they have not developed thickets yet and would be easy to remove.

As you can probably tell, I fall heavily on the side of getting this invasive nuisance out of Pocahontas County.

Unless it can cure baldness – then, by all means, water and feed it, and call me when the berries are ripe!

From the mountain trails of Watoga State Park,
Ken Springer

*Socrates willingly drank a fatal tea made of poison hemlock rather than be exiled from his beloved Greece in 399 BC. He was charged by the government with corrupting the youth of Athens with his ideas.

more recommended stories