Name: Barberry (Berberis vulgaris)
Otherwise known as: Pipperidge Bush, Holy Thorn
Habitat: A shrub member of the Berberidaceae family growing up to 3m in woodlands in Europe and the Middle East. It has spiny, obovate, serrated leaves borne in clusters on yellowish stems emanating from a three-spined axil. The shrub bears drooping racemes of pale yellow flowers, the stamens of which are sensitive and spring inwards if touched. The fruits are bright red, oblong and sharply acid to taste: all parts of the plant except the fruit are poisonous.
What does it do: Barberry is an enigmatic plant and gives rise to controversy among herbalists: some value it highly while others claim it is too dangerous to use. The plant contains the powerful alkaloid Berberine and the lesser alkalines Oxyacanthine and Berbamine; tannins, gum, resin and starch. It is mentioned in the Ebers Papyrus of ancient Egypt as a cure for marsh fevers and was much praised by the medieval physicians as a treatment for liver complaints, biliousness and general debility. Culpeper suggests ‘…it is a purge for the choler, and if mixed with boiled white wine, and drunk each morning, will be an excellent remedy for cleansing the body’. The Italians believe that barberry formed the crown of thorns that was forced on the head of Christ at his crucifixion.
Barberry is a liver stimulant, antiseptic, cholagogue, alterative, hypotensive, anti-inflammatory, anti-haemorrhagic, anti-diarrhoeal, amoebicidal, febrifuge and bactericidal. Some herbalists use it to treat a range of afflictions including jaundice, gastritis, gallstones, malaria, sandfly fever, toxaemia arising from drugs and environmental chemicals such as pesticides and herbicides, shingles, bladder disorders, renal colic and leukopaenia (diminishing white blood cells) arising from chemotherapy. Veterinarians give barberries to domestic animals affected by cholera.
The berries are rich in vitamin C and are the basis of the celebrated ‘comfitures d’epine vinette’ associated with the city of Rouen. In Poland the bark is used to produce a yellow dye that is employed to colour leather. In Victorian England the berries were dried with sugar and eaten as sweetmeats and Mrs Beeton of culinary fame produced a recipe for pickling them and making tartlets. There was a belief among English farmers that barberry infected growing wheat with mildew, although botanists claim it is without foundation.
Not to be taken if pregnant.