Barberry, Latin name Berberis vulgaris, is native to Europe, where it is commonly used as an ornamental shrub. It is also commonly grown in North America. Its close relative, Berberis aquifolium, is a native of North America, and is also known as Oregon grape. Native Americans originally taught settlers its value as a medicinal herb. Two other species of the plant, Nepalese and Indian barberry, are native to those areas and possess similar qualities.
Barberry is a perennial herb that is usually around 8 ft (2.4 m) tall, but can grow up to 10 ft (3 m) high. It bears yellow flowers, red or black berries, and small rounded fleshy leaves. It flourishes in dry sandy soil, and prefers a sunny location. Research has established that the active alkaloids in barberry belong to the isoquinoline family. They are berberine, berbamine, oxyacanthine, bervulcine, columbamine, isotetrandrine, jatrorrhizine, magnoflorine, and vulvracine. Other components include resin, tannin, and chelidonic acid, among others.
Barberry and other berberine-containing plants have been used throughout history for their medicinal properties. Chinese medicine has records of such use dating back over 3,000 years. In addition to the fact that these plants have been tried and tested over time, recent research has indeed confirmed what herbalists have been teaching for millennia—berberine has remarkable properties.
The berries of the barberry plant are traditionally used to make jams and jellies, and the plant is used to make a dye. However, its culinary use is only minor compared to its importance as a member of the herbal Materia Medica.
The medicinal actions of barberry are traditionally classified as being cholagogue, hepatic, antiemetic, bitter and laxative. Its main active constituent, berberine, has recently been the subject of much research (it is the active constituent of a number of valuable herbs, barberry and goldenseal being two important examples), and has been proven effective against a variety of ailments.
Barberry is chiefly valued as an efficient liver cleanser, due to its ability to correct liver function and promote the flow of bile. It is good for heartburn, stomach
upsets, including gastritis, ulcers and ulcerative bowel conditions, and is an effective appetite stimulant. It has also been recommended for renal colic and the treatment of renal calculi, where it is claimed to allay burning and soreness.
The herb has significant antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal properties, and has even demonstrated antiprotozoal properties, so it is an extremely valuable weapon against infection and fever. It is recommended for use against diarrhea, whether of non-specific type, such as gastroenteritis, or from an identified source such as cholera. It is also capable of inhibiting the growth of Giardia lamblia, Trichomonas vaginalis, and Entamoeba histolytica. In fact, barberry is capable of similar action to Metronidazole, a common antiprotozoal medication, but has the advantage of no side effects.
Berberine, the active constituent of barberry, inhibits Candida and other fungal growth, but does not affect beneficial bacteria such as Acidophilus and Bifidus. Barberry is particularly useful for skin infections, for which it is often taken internally, and has even been found effective against psoriasis.
It is often used against bronchial infections, as it is capable of breaking down and dispersing mucous accumulations, and controlling further secretions. It is an effective sedative, is capable of lowering blood pressure, and is an effective uterine stimulant. Barberry is also taken for gallstones and inflammation of the gallbladder. It has the ability to correct an enlarged spleen.
Barberry is useful for correcting menstrual irregularities, correcting anemia, as a treatment for vaginitis, and even as a tonic for a hangover. It is a suitable medication for gouty constitutions. It is recommended for strengthening the patient during convalescence, as it acts as an immune stimulant.
Barberry can be used to treat malaria and even Leishmaniasis, which is a protozoal infection. Nicholas Culpeper praised the barberry plant highly, and stated that the berries are just as useful as the bark. He recommended their use for the cure of ringworm, in addition to the ailments already mentioned.
Because it is capable of increasing blood supply, barberry may be of use to those suffering from ventricular heart defects. Berberine is used in China to treat white blood cell depression when caused by chemotherapy or radiation treatments.
The bark of the roots or stems are the parts used medicinally.
The dried herb may be taken in a decoction, for which place one teaspoonful of the herb in a cup of water and bring to the boil. Leave for about fifteen minutes and drink. This may be taken three time daily. The decoction may also be used as a gargle in cases of sore throat.
If a tincture is being used, l–2 ml may be taken three times daily.
Herbalists recommend that in cases of gallbladder disease, barberry combined with fringe tree bark and black root are an effective treatment.
For an effective liver cleanse, herbalists recommend a combination of one part barberry, one part wild yam, one part dandelion, and one half part licorice root, simmered in one pint of water for ten minutes, then strained through a coffee filter.
The bark is sometimes made into a poultice for the treatment of skin lesions, and a compress is useful for swollen eye lids and conjunctivitis.
Barberry root should not be taken by pregnant women because of its stimulant effect on the uterus. Those with heart disease or chronic respiratory problems should only take barberry after consultation with a herbalist, naturopath, or medical specialist.
The cultivation of barberry is restricted in some areas, as it hosts and promotes stem rust, a scourge to cereal crops.
If in any doubt, it is always best to consult a herbal practitioner regarding dosage of herbs.
Berberine (an active ingredient of barberry), has been found to affect normal bilirubin in infants, so in theory, it may have an adverse effect on jaundice.
Strong extracts may cause stomach upsets, so use of barberry for a period of more than two consecutive weeks is not recommended.
Barberry, if taken to excess may cause nose bleeds, lethargy, kidney irritation, skin and eye inflammation, in addition to headaches and low blood sugar.
Barberry, or any herb containing berberine, has been found to interact with Sumycin, Helidac (Tetrecycline), Vibramycin, Helidac (Tetracycline), Doxycycline, and Achromycin, causing them to be less effective, and to affect their absorption.
Culpeper, Nicholas. Culpeper's Complete Herbal. London: Bloomsbury Books, 1992.
Duke, James A. The Green Pharmacy. New York: St. Martin's Paperbacks, 1998.
Grieve, M. A Modern Herbal. London: Tiger Books International, 1992.
Hoffman, David L. "Barberry." Healt World Online. <http://www.healthy.net/asp.>
Birdsall, Timothy and Gregory Kelly. "Berberine: Theraputic Potential of an Alkaloid found in several Medicinal plants." In Alternative Medicine Review [online database] Vol. 2, no. 2 (March 1997). <http://www.thorne.com/altmedrev/fulltext/berb.html.>
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