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Barberry or Bread


Today, barberry is a popular ornamental shrub. Plant catalogs offer a wide variety of barberry, ranging from the orange rocket to the crimson pygmy. However, barberry has not always been looked upon so kindly. In the early part of the twentieth century, it was viewed as the deadly enemy of wheat farmers. On this date in 1929, the Bismarck Tribune reported on a new program for use in elementary schools to educate children on the need to eradicate the bush.

Barberry plants in thirteen grain-producing states, including North Dakota, had become infected with the fungus that causes stem rust. The fungus lives on the barberry in the spring and spreads to wheat in the fall. Stem rust can dramatically reduce wheat yields. In severe cases, it can destroy an entire crop. In 1918, with the United States involved in World War I, there were fears of food shortages. To save wheat, the Department of Agriculture initiated the eradication program. 

Professor H.L. Bolley of North Dakota Agricultural School was an early pioneer of plant pathology. His efforts contributed to the eradication program. North Dakota was the first state to mandate the eradication of barberry. The legislation was based on Bolley’s work. Bolley later said this work was his most important contribution to science.

Barberry eradication was a massive effort. The Department of Agriculture sent posters, informational folders, and even samples of barberry to county agricultural agents, farmers, and civic organizations. Schools and scout groups were encouraged to involve children in the effort. The literature advised adults to utilize “the desire of children to learn by doing” and their “exceptional intelligence and their ability to accomplish results when given a problem.” Rust Buster groups were formed to enlist children in the effort. For finding barberry bushes, they were awarded “rust buster” medals. Based on annual reports from the states, children were responsible for destroying thousands of the shrubs.

In the initial stages, the general public played an important role in eradicating barberry, but paid field crews eventually took. During the Depression, barberry eradication was an important public works program, employing large numbers of out-of-work men. 


Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher



Bismarck Tribune. “Eradication Study Plans Announced.” Bismarck ND. 10/2/1929. Page 12.

North Dakota State University. “Plant Pathology.” https://www.ag.ndsu.edu/plantpath/history  Accessed 9/1/2020.

American Phytopathological Society. “Barberry or Bread.” https://www.apsnet.org/edcenter/apsnetfeatures/Pages/Barberry.aspx  Accessed 9/1/2020.

MinnPost. “Barberry War.” https://www.minnpost.com/mnopedia/2019/12/barberry-war-why-the-usda-spent-more-than-50-years-trying-to-eradicate-this-thorny-bush-in-minnesota/ Accessed 9/1/2020.

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