Barberry is a thorned, deciduous shrub growing up to 3 metres (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 coloured berries with a sour taste (1) (2).
folk medicine, European barberry root bark has been used for various
conditions including liver dysfunction, gallbadder 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
antihelicobacter, fungicidal and antiparasitic. 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).
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
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 breast feeding (4).
This article copyright 2003 by Mark Porter. All rights reserved.
Dorfler HP, Roselt G. The Dictionary of Healing Plants. New York, NY:
Blandford Press. 1989.
(2) “Barberry, Berberis vulgaris.” Indian Spring Herbal Encyclopedia.
(Accessed May 30, 2003). http://www.indianspringherbs.com/Barberry.htm
(3) 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.
(4) Jellin JM, Batz F, Hitchens K. Natural Medicines Comprehensive
Database. Third Edition. Stockton, California: Therapeutic Research
(5) Gruenwald J, et.al. PDR for Herbal Medicines. First Edition.
Montvale, NJ: Medical Economics Company, Inc., 1998.
(6) Hostettmann, K, Marston A, Maillard M, Hamburger M. ed.
Phytochemistry of Plants Used in Traditional Medicine. Oxford: Clarendon
(7) Moerman, DE. American Medical Ethnobotany: A Reference Dictionary.
New York, NY: Garland Publishing. 1977.
(8) Duke JA, et. al. Handbook of Medicinal Herbs. Second Edition. Boca
Raton, FL: CRC Press. 2002.]
(9) Lueng AY, Foster S. Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients Used
in Foord, Drugs and Cosmetics. Second Edition. New York, NY: Wiley &
(10) Chevallier A. Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants. Revised Edition.
Sydney, Australia: Dorling Kindersley. 2001.
(11) Blumenthal M, et. al. ed. The Complete German Commission E
Monographs: Therapeutic Guide to Herbal Medicines. Austin: American
Botanical Council, 1998.
(12) “Barberry, Berberis vulgaris.” United States Department of
Agriculture (USDA) Medicinal Plant Database. Beltsville Agricultural
Research Center. (Accessed May 30, 2003).