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Beware of barberry, a ‘scaffold for ticks’


Japanese barberry is characterized by spiny branches, small round- or oval-shaped leaves and red berries that are not apparent on this plant. The shrub is ignored by deer, but not by ticks, which will literally hang out on it waiting for a person or animal to come by. —Jeannette Ross

Barberry is a vigorous and prolific plant — so fruitful, in fact, that the state has forbidden plant nurseries from selling varieties that seed too heavily.

Although some less abundant barberry plants remain popular and legal among plant merchants, including the yellow, purple, dwarf, and pigmy varieties, the straight-green variety, seen throughout Weston and the area, has been statutorily pulled off garden shelves.

Scot Deniston of Young’s Nursery on Danbury Road in Wilton said the reason for prohibition is that very resilient and fruitful plants often choke out native species that could otherwise flourish.

But it’s not just the forests that are threatened by spreading barberry plants. People, too, should be cautious of the prickly shrubs, especially as they’ve become ubiquitous nesting places for deer ticks.

“The plant is basically a scaffold for ticks,” said Patricia Sesto,  Wilton’s environmental affairs director. “Barberry is a preferred plant for the deer tick.” Apparently, they thrive in the humid environment provided by the plant.

Adult ticks nested on barberry often wait for mice, foxes, coyotes, deer, and people to latch onto in the late stages of their life cycles.

There is a study under way at the UConn Forest in Storrs, where the relationship between ticks and barberry plants is being studied. It is being conducted by researchers from UConn and the Connecticut Agriculture and Experiment Station in New Haven.

Although barberry has been running rampant through local forests for decades, it is spreading more quickly now because other plants are being eaten by deer. Because it seeds so heavily, and its seeds are eaten by birds, plants can spring up anywhere, including residential property.

There has been talk of removing barberry from open spaces, but this often only exacerbates the problem, as some form of vegetation is generally better than nothing, she said.

Residents should be wary of foreign plants and the threat of Lyme disease, using insect repellent and being cautious when walking in woods or fields.

Deer ticks are the most common carrier and are roughly the size of poppy seeds. Bites — which often result in a rash the shape of a bull’s eye — and symptoms — which often include fever, chills and fatigue — should be reported to a doctor immediately.

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