Barberry is a thorned, deciduous shrub growing up to 3 meters (10 feet) in height common to most areas of Central and Southern Europe and the Northeastern regions of the United States. It grows well in dry, sunny locations, flowers in mid-spring to early summer and produces a fruit (Fructis berberidis) that can be harvested in early autumn or fall.
The leaves of the barberry plant are spatula shaped with numerous spiny teeth arising from the axils of thorns on short bushy shoots. Barberry has yellow, unpleasant smelling flowers that form hanging clusters, which form into long scarlet colored berries with a sour taste (1) (2).
In folk medicine, european barberry root bark has been used for various conditions including liver dysfunction, gallbladder disease, diarrhea, indigestion and urinary tract diseases (3) (4) (5). It has been applied in many cultures to treat malaria, and leishmaniasis (4) (5) (6).
American Indians used barberry to improve appetite, a function that was soon picked up by early American settlers. It was also reportedly used for treating stomach problems such as ulcers and heartburn (3), and is listed in the American Medical Ethnobotany Reference Dictionary as being effective in reducing fever (7).
Duke’s Handbook of Medicinal Herbs lists barberry as being anti-helicobacter, fungicidal and anti-parasitic. It reports indications of barberry against staphylococcus, streptococcus and yeast, and claims that it is superior in bactericidal properties to chloramphenicol, a commonly prescribed antibiotic drug (8).
The constituents berberine, columbamine, and oxyacanthine show evidence of antibacterial activity, with some suggestion that berberine sulfate might be amebicidal and trypanocidal (3) (9). Research indicates that berberine is specifically effective against cholera, giardia, shigella, salmonella and E. coli (10).
The German Commission E Monographs list barberry not only as useful for treating liver diseases, but also as a stimulant for the circulatory and respiratory systems (11). Barberry is claimed also to have anti-viral activities, and as a treatment for chronic candidiasis, indigestion and parasites (12).
Laboratory studies have shown that berberine has some activity against E. histolytica in mice (6).
Barberry is generally considered safe when consumed orally and appropriately for medicinal purposes, but due to its moderately toxic properties cannot be recommended for consumption in quantities over 500 mg. Barberry has been classified as unsafe to take during pregnancy due to its uterine stimulant properties. Due to the lack of reliable studies on the use of barberry during periods of lactation it is not recommended for use while breastfeeding (4).
- Dorfler HP, Roselt G. The Dictionary of Healing Plants. New York, NY: Blandford Press. 1989.
- “Barberry, Berberis vulgaris.” Indian Spring Herbal Encyclopedia. (Accessed May 30, 2003) http://www.indianspringherbs.com/Barberry.htm
- Foster S, Tyler VE. Tyler’s Honest Herbal: A Sensible Guide to the Use of Herbs and Related Remedies. Fourth Edition. New York: The Haworth Herbal Press, 1999.
- Jellin JM, Batz F, Hitchens K. Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database. Third Edition. Stockton, California: Therapeutic Research Faculty, 2000.
- Gruenwald J, et.al. PDR for Herbal Medicines. First Edition. Montvale, NJ: Medical Economics Company, Inc., 1998.
- Hostettmann, K, Marston A, Maillard M, Hamburger M. ed. Phytochemistry of Plants Used in Traditional Medicine. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995.
- Moerman, DE. American Medical Ethnobotany: A Reference Dictionary. New York, NY: Garland Publishing. 1977.
- Duke JA, et. al. Handbook of Medicinal Herbs. Second Edition. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press. 2002.
- Lueng AY, Foster S. Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients Used in Food, Drugs and Cosmetics. Second Edition. New York, NY: Wiley & Sons, 1996.
10. Chevallier A. Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants. Revised Edition. Sydney, Australia: Dorling Kindersley. 2001.
- Blumenthal M, et. al. ed. The Complete German Commission E Monographs: Therapeutic Guide to Herbal Medicines. Austin: American Botanical Council, 1998.
- “Barberry, Berberis vulgaris.” United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Medicinal Plant Database. Beltsville Agricultural Research Center. (Accessed May 30, 2003). http://www.pl.barc.usda.gov/usda_plant/plant_home.cfm