Barberry: A Shrub with Medicine in Its Makeup

This anti-infection herb has a long history of use in Egypt and India.


| March/April 2008


I wish I knew in my 20s what I know today about barberry. Back then I had a barberry hedge along my driveway, where its vibrant red colors were a thing of beauty in autumn. Had I realized that I possessed a shrub with a 2,500-year medicinal past, I might have made a cup of tea with the spring clippings I foolishly tossed into the trash. That thorny shrub with the pretty red berries in late summer was arguably one of the best antibacterial and antioxidant plants in the neighborhood—not to mention a good food plant.

Barberry’s Rich History as a Medicine

It seems every other culture in the world has known about the benefits of barberry. Today, it is the most widely used drug in homeopathic medicine for kidney pain and the removal of kidney stones. The ancient Egyptians used it with fennel seed to prevent plagues. In India it was used to treat dysentery. European herbalists have used it to treat liver and gallbladder ailments. Russian healers used barberry for inflammation, high blood pressure and abnormal uterine bleeding. And the Iranians valued the plant for its anti-arrhythmic and sedative effects. Barberry has been touted for helping the urinary and digestive tracts, the skin and even the mind.

Considering the spectrum of health disorders against which barberry is used, one might wonder: Can a plant really be effective against so many problems? We Westerners are a skeptical bunch, and a plant such as barberry piques our desire for evidence.

Antioxidant Champion, Bacteria Buster

Barberry is a common garden bush native to Europe and the British Isles that has been naturalized in North America. There are about 500 species, and Berberis vulgaris is the best known medicinally. A close relative, Oregon grape (B. aquifolium) is native to North America, as is B. canadensis, which grows in the southern United States and closely resembles the medicinal properties of B. vulgaris. Barberry can grow in nutrient-poor soils with little to excessive water. It is a scrappy plant—tough and resilient—and over the years I have found that “scrappy” usually implies health benefits.



That barberry hedge at my house grew in the desert-like climate of British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley. With the sun beating down on it during the parched days of summer, it depended on an internal cache of antioxidants to survive. In fact, in a study published in the journal Pharmacological Research, researchers from the Local Food-Nutraceuticals Consortium—an international group studying the benefits of Mediterranean diets on human health—performed test-tube assays comparing barberry fruit, leaf and tender-stem extracts to 109 other non-Berberis species. They found barberry to be the best overall antioxidant.

That antioxidant power might confer age-defying benefits to some Mediterranean peoples who eat this herb as part of their usual diet. Country dwellers in areas such as southern Italy, Greece and southeastern Spain always have eaten wild or semi-wild plants like barberry. Among the rural people such plants might help explain their relatively low incidence of age-related diseases, such as heart ailments and diabetes—diseases attributable at least in part to oxidative damage accumulating in tissues and organs.







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