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Barberry war: Why the USDA spent more than 50 years trying to eradicate this thorny bush in Minnesota

The common barberry is an introduced plant species that was once grown as a popular ornamental bush throughout the northern half of the US.

photo of worker pouring salt on bush roots
A worker pours salt on a barberry bush in Minnesota, ca. 1925. Applying salt to kill a bush’s roots was the main method of destroying them before the widespread use of herbicides in the 1950s.

Begun in 1918 and active until the late 1970s, the Barberry Eradication Program was an unprecedented cooperative effort between the US Department of Agriculture and twelve US states to remove the invasive common barberry bush from major areas of wheat production in the United States. The common barberry bush was a problem because it is a secondary host for the fungus that causes stem-rust disease, the most devastating disease of wheat. Minnesota played the central role in the establishment and operations of the eradication program.

The common barberry is an introduced plant species that was once grown as a popular ornamental bush throughout the northern half of the US. It was a problem because of its association with stem rust disease, the most serious threat to wheat. Stem rust disease is caused by a microscopic fungus that lives part of its life on the barberry bush before infecting wheat.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, stem rust outbreaks were common in the north-central US. This was especially problematic for Minnesota, where large-scale wheat farming in the western part of the state had led to the development of the world’s leading flour milling industry, in Minneapolis. The city’s flour mills depended on a consistent supply of wheat that was increasingly threatened by stem rust disease.

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A huge stem rust epidemic in 1916 and unprecedented wheat losses brought calls for action. Within a year, the United States had entered World War I, and with the 1916 wheat losses so striking, concerns arose over possible food shortages during wartime. This “war emergency” atmosphere drove efforts to protect American food production, with wheat a top priority.

Aware of the barberry’s connection to these devastating wheat losses, proponents of eradication successfully advocated for the total removal of the bush via compulsory laws throughout the northern wheat-growing region of the US. Elvin Charles Stakman, the world’s leading authority on stem rust disease and a professor at the University of Minnesota, played the leading role in pushing for barberry eradication.

The Barberry Eradication Program officially began in Minnesota on March 19, 1918, with the passage of Legislative Order No. 28, which condemned the bush and called for its destruction. The state eradication headquarters was located at the University of Minnesota Farm in St. Paul. Wartime emotions ran high, and eradication authorities stressed the patriotic duty of all citizens to help locate and destroy barberry. They sent out informational circulars, posters, and barberry specimens to public institutions, county agricultural agents, local associations, and clubs as well as newspapers. Even school children were seen as vital assets in the campaign. Instructional materials went out to all schools and local scout troops. This novel public campaign originated in Minnesota before spreading out to the other participating states.

Although the public paid an important role in the eradication effort over the first couple of decades, over time, paid field crews took over the job of locating and removing bushes. This was especially the case during the Great Depression of the early 1930s. With so many people out of work, large-scale government work relief programs provided employment opportunities. The Barberry Eradication Program took advantage of this opportunity and hired large crews. Not surprisingly, with the expanded effort, this was the period of time when most barberry bushes were located and destroyed.

In 1979, the United States Department of Agriculture ended the cooperative Barberry Eradication Program in Minnesota. By that date, more than one million barberry bushes had been destroyed on over 9,000 properties from eighty-seven counties in the state. Perhaps the largest effort ever to remove an introduced plant species, the Barberry Eradication Program had helped reduce stem rust of wheat to a minor problem in the United States.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.