Barberry is a small and bushy deciduous shrub with brown to gray thorny branches (3-pronged spines). The leaves are serrated and the bright red berries are juicy, sour, and edible when ripe. It grows to 3 m (9ft) by 2 m (6ft), is suitable for a variety of soil conditions, and hardy to zone 3. In the late spring (May-June) bright yellow flowers bloom. In the fall (Sept. to Oct.) the seeds ripen and become dark bunches of red berries. The flowers are hermaphrodite (have both male and female organs) so the plant is self-fertile. The flowers are also pollinated by insects. It is noted for attracting wildlife.
Medicinal use of barberry dates back at least 2,500 years. In ancient Egypt it was combined with fennel seed to prevent plague and to reduce fevers. Chinese literature classifies barberry as cold and bitter and suitable for Damp Heat, Heat Toxin, Retained Pathogen. Conditions associated include jaundice, malaria, sore throat, laryngitis, cough due to pathogens in the lungs like bronchitis and non-productive barking coughs, red eyes, diarrhea, malaria, and dysentery.
Lonicerus (1679) described barberry as cold and dry to the second degree and found it useful for gallbladder-induced vomiting and for strengthening the stomach, liver, and heart. Culpeper (1651) found it useful for cleansing the body of choleric humors and treating diseases associated with choler, such as yellow jaundice, hot agues (malaria), scabs, itch, and boils – clears heat from the blood and liver.
Berberis aquifolium (Oregon Grape), part of the Berberis family, is native to N. America. Native Americans used a decoction of the bitter-tasting root for appetite loss, diarrhea, fevers, and to relieve upset stomach and promote vigor (relieve debility.) They also ate the berries. Oregon Grape is the sister plant to barberry and may be used just as one would use barberry. Oregon Grape has a greater affinity for the skin so I use it most often when there are both bowel and skin issues. As a sister plant it also contains berbine.
While barberry has a long history of use for many conditions it is most commonly use in diarrheal conditions (including traveler’s diarrhea and diarrhea caused by food poisoning), other gastrointestinal complaints including constipation, lack of appetite, heartburn, and stomach cramps. Current research supports the following actions: antimicrobial, antifungal, antiprotozoal, anti-inflammatory, hepato-protective, and cardio-protective, and antiatherosclerotic (thickening of artery walls).
According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, “barberry has beneficial effects on both the cardiovascular and neural system. As such, it may be useful in the treatment of hypertension, tachycardia (rapid heartbeat), and some neuronal disorders, such as epilepsy and convulsions… Barberry is used to ease inflammation and infection of the urinary (bladder and urinary tract infections), gastrointestinal, and respiratory tracts (sore throat, nasal congestion, sinusitis, bronchitis) as well as candida (yeast) infections of the skin or vagina”.
Barberry contains thiamine, vitamin C, beta-carotene, lutein, and zeaxanthin, chromium, cobalt, zinc, isoquinolone alkaloids, flavonolignans, and porphyrins. Researchers believe the active ingredients in barberry are the isoquinolone alkaloids, particularly berberine. Herbalists and other natural health professionals understand that the whole plant is active. The synergy of the parts is greater than the isolated parts.
“In traditional medicine whole plants or mixtures of plants are used rather than isolated compounds. There is evidence that crude plant extracts often have greater in vitro or/and in vivo antiplasmodial activity than isolated constituents at an equivalent dose.” – Malaria Journal 2011
When one considers the usefulness of just the berberine content it is easy to understand why barberry has been in use for at least 2,500 years.
Berberine, isolated from plants, stimulates the macrophages (white blood cells that devour microorganisms) and is has been shown to be an excellent immune system booster and antimicrobial. In 2005 berberine was reported to have antimicrobial activity against all tested strains of MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus). Studies have also shown that berberine kills amoebae and can be used successfully to treat giardia infections.
Barberry and goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) are often used for similar purposes because both herbs contain the chemical berberine. Understanding that the plants are more than berberine is important. Goldenseal does best with catarrhal states (inflammation of a mucous membrane, especially of the respiratory tract, accompanied by excessive secretions) while barberry is more suitable for the bronchitis/barking cough.
While goldenseal is very popular, it is often overly potent for a child. For children, barberry should be used instead of goldenseal. Barberry is excellent for young, delicate, or weak people. Barberry should be used for 7-10 consecutive days at a time, waiting at least 3 days before using barberry again. This gives the helpful bacteria of the intestine a chance to recover. Do not use while pregnant or nursing is a recommendation for all berberine-containing herbs.
1 part Barberry bark (Berberis Vulgaris)
1 part Dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale)
1 part Red raspberry leaves (Rubus Idaeus)
1 part Ginger (Zingiber Officinale)
2 parts Turkey rhubarb root (Rheum Palmatum)
1 part Fennel (Foeniculum Vulgare)
If you are interested in a career as an herbalist consider our Herbal Consultant and Master Herbalist diploma programs. If you are interested in the Natural Health Consultant, Holistic Health Professional, or Doctor of Traditional Naturopathy programs I am pleased to say that you will also be learning about how to work with herbs.
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Sharlene Peterson, Educational Coordinator
Genesis School of Natural Health, March 2014
For educational purposes only. This information has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.