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.
Barberry also is antimicrobial. The whole plant—but especially the roots—contains a bitter alkaloid substance called berberine. Berberine can treat intestinal infections, such as bacterial dysentery, because it is antagonistic to the likes of E. coli, salmonella, shigella, giardia and even cholera. It acts partly by preventing microbes from latching onto human cells. The main clinical use of berberine is treatment of bacterial diarrhea, intestinal parasitic infections and ocular trachoma infections (a severe form of bacterial conjunctivitis).
Barberry is rich in other alkaloids as well—at least 22 in all—some of which serve as heart and neural medicines. Animal studies with berry extracts suggest barberry’s alkaloids can stabilize heart disorders, such as tachycardia (rapid heartbeat) and ventricular fibrillation (a condition in which the heart’s electrical activity becomes disordered, causing the ventricles to “flutter” rather than beat, resulting in the heart pumping little or no blood). For example, the alkaloid berbamine can help prevent ventricular fibrillation possibly by preventing sodium and calcium overload.
Berry extracts also can help hypertension and some nervous system disorders like epilepsy and convulsions. They assist potassium movement and relax blood vessels, thereby reducing blood pressure. Barberry further helps regulate potassium currents in the brain, which might account for its sedative and neuroprotective benefits. Extracts used in these animal studies were prepared with water, meaning that a tea made from the berries would be a simple way to harness some of these benefits.
More to Discover
Some of barberry’s other purported benefits are not yet understood. As a kidney and gallbladder tonic, barberry fruit compounds might help break up stones in the urinary tract by precipitating out calcium oxalate, the substance that makes up the stones (some citrus fruit juices have a similar effect). As a gallbladder tonic, the fruit can boost the flow of bile.
The major criticism of the research on barberry to date is the lack of double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials in humans, considered the gold standard for confirmation of a medicine’s effects. Despite the plant’s extensive history of traditional usage, and a significant body of test-tube and animal research, until those findings are corroborated clinically, barberry probably will not be acknowledged by conventional medical practitioners. Meanwhile, traditional healers use it with confidence, relying upon the herb’s long and apparently successful historical record.
Barberry is available in various forms, including capsules, fluid extracts and tinctures. Extracts typically are standardized to contain 8 to 12 percent alkaloids, of which berberine is the most prevalent. A medicinal tea from the dried roots also is available, and barberry ointment (a 10 percent formula) is sold as a remedy for psoriasis and other skin conditions. Important safety notes: Strong standardized extracts of barberry can cause stomach upset and generally should not be used longer than one to two weeks continuously. Barberry might be unsafe for pregnant or nursing women as it can increase jaundice or affect normal development of the fetus. It is not recommended for children younger than 2, nor for the elderly. Due to its moderately toxic properties and potential interactions with such medications as blood thinners, antihistamines, antibiotics and diabetes drugs, it is wisest to use barberry supplements under the guidance of a health practitioner.
Introduce yourself to barberry in the most enjoyable way—by having the berries in sauce, jelly, juice, wine or tea. Try substituting some barberries for raisins in fruitcakes and pies. Middle Easterners put them into rice dishes. You can use the fruit as you would cranberries—barberries are more sour but less bitter. Barberries (also called zereshk) can be purchased at Mediterranean or Middle Eastern grocers, some health-food shops or on the Internet. Refrigerate to maintain color and quality.
Should You Grow Barberry?
Barberry has been the target of eradication programs in North America because it can harbor a nasty pest of important cereal grains. A fungus known as Puccinia graminis f. sp. tritici infects wheat, oats and barley, but it also uses many barberry species as alternative hosts, causing stem rust. In the past, stem rust devastated grain crops in the United States, Canada and elsewhere. Today, cereal-growing regions are facing this threat again because barberry has been reappearing naturally. Only rust-resistant species of barberry, used mainly for ornamental purposes, are considered safe to plant. Check with your local agricultural authorities for restrictions and recommendations.
Gina Mohammed, Ph.D., is a plant physiologist in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada. She is author of Catnip and Kerosene Grass—What Plants Teach Us About Life (www.CandlenutBooks.com)