The Holy Thorn of Plants


           Many of the different ancient medical systems of the world have utilized Barberry (Berberis vulgaris), in one form or another, both medicinally and culinary.  This would include Chinese medicine (TCM), Ayurvedic medicine (TAM), Traditional European medicine, Native American medicine, and others including Western Herbalism.  This native plant of Europe, Africa, and Asia has been recorded in use medicinally for more than 2500 years! (1) Modern science has become more intrigued with this thorny plant within the last couple of decades, and they have only confirmed many of the traditional uses; as well as, other possible uses for diabetics, cancer patients, or even those infected with Echinococcis (parasite infection).  (2,3) I want to introduce you to the plant once called “Holy Thorn” by the Italians as it was thought to have formed part of the crown of thorns made for the Savior. (4)

                Barberry is a woody shrub that is hardy to zone 3, and has been introduced to North America by the early colonists.  You will find this shrub naturalized in the Great Plains, Great Lakes, and Northeastern U.S.  Its natural habitat is in wooded areas, thickets, grasslands, and abandoned fields.  The stem is many-branched reaching a height of 3 – 10 feet tall.  The bark has a gray outer surface, and when scraped, a yellowish inner bark.  The branches consist of 3-pronged spines located near the stem nodes, and oval leaves finely-serrated that are widest near the middle of the leaf.  The flowers consist of small, yellow, pendulous racemes that bloom May through June.  The edible red berries will ripen between August and September.  The berries are very tart and the berry juice is sometimes used as a substitute for lemon juice because they also contain citric and malic acid.  This plant can be propagated by suckers, cuttings, layering, or by seeds.  Be advised that this is considered an invasive species and can spread easily if you are planning on using this shrub in your landscape.  Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii)  is prevalent around my area, so I prefer to wildcraft when I am in need of Barberry root, bark , or berries.  Japanese barberry can be used as a substitute for B. vulgaris since the alkaloid content is similar. (5) I have also ordered the root bark from reputable sources if I am in need of it rather than growing this spreading plant myself.  You can still find many landscaping companies that plant different varieties of Barberry; however, I use Berberis vulgaris and B. thunbergii  for medicinal purposes.

                As I stated above, the root and berries are mostly used medicinally; however, the bark also contains the yellow active constituent Berberine as does the root bark, and can be used medicinally also. Berberine is a yellow alkaloid that is partly responsible for the antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal, febrifuge, digestive, and hepatic properties of this herb. I say partly because there are other alkaloids, tannins, wax, resin, gum, and starch that give Barberry its medicinal values.   Berberine is considered an antibiotic and a bitter stimulant.  You will also find this constituent in other herbs including Oregon Grape root (Berberis aquifolium), or Goldenseal root (Hydrastis canadensis).  However, I want you to realize that Barberry, Oregon Grape, or Goldenseal have many more constituents in their whole form besides just Berberine.  If you take Berberine supplements, you have the possibility of many side effects that the whole plant does not have.  The berries do not contain Berberine, but have astringent, mild diuretic, and cooling properties.  Native Americans would use the juice of the berries mixed with water for fevers.(6)  They would also use the root bark in a formula for treating diarrhea, inflammation of the gallbladder, and as a bitter to reduce gas and indigestion.(7)  An elder once called the plant “yellow eyes” according to J.T Garrett of “The Cherokee Herbal”.  The bitter alkaloids present in Barberry help to stimulate bile production which improves digestion and cleans out the liver and gallbladder.  Barberry can also help to stimulate the immune system, increase appetite, help with skin inflammations, induce perspiration, and help with mild constipation.  It has been shown to be effective against Staff infections, Strep throat, Salmonella and Shigella bacteria, E. Coli bacteria, Urinary tract infections, and yeast infections. (8) It has also been used traditionally as an eyewash for conjunctivitis.  Traditional Chinese Medicine uses Barberry for treating lowered white blood cell counts following chemotherapy or radiation therapy. (9)  From this list, you can see why this herb has been used for more than a millennia.  Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) is an herb that is widely used, but is over-harvested and is currently on the “At-Risk” list and could become extinct in the wild.  Barberry would be a good substitute and give you the same benefits if it is a berberine containing plant you need.

                Most of the applications of Barberry would be in an infusion, decoction, tincture, or capsule form.  You can take 2 ounces of the infusion/decoction up to 3 times daily if needed.  You can also take ½ - 1 teaspoon (15 – 30 drops) of the tincture or extract up to 3 times daily if needed.  If you are using the capsules, a dose of 2 capsules up to 3 times a day are recommended.  This is a bitter and in order to receive the maximum benefits of this herb, you should not try to cover up the taste with sweeteners until you no longer taste the bitterness.  Barberry should not be used during pregnancy, and it should never be taken in large doses due to its purgative actions. 

                This has been one of the driest summers we have had in years here in Northern Ohio.  Harvesting some of the leaves and flowers has been challenging unless they are drought-loving plants.  The barberry shrub should be producing ripe berries shortly, and I will be harvesting those soon.  Here’s to hoping for some much needed rain and productive harvesting for all of us!


Until next month,

Mary Colvin, M.H.




1). Arayne MS, Sultana N, Bahadur SS.  The berberis story:  Berberis vulgaris in therapeutics.  Pak J Pharm Sci. 2007;20(1):83-92

2). Abd El-Wahab AE, Ghareeb DA, Sarhan EE, Abu-Serie MM, El Demellawy MA.  In vitro biological assessment of berberis vulgaris and its active constituent, berberine: antioxidants, anti-acetylcholinesterase, anti-diabetic and anticancer effects.  BMC Complement Altern Med. 2013 Sep 5;13(1):218

3). Rouhani S, Salehi N, Kamalinejad M, Zayeri F.  Efficacy of Berberis vulgaris aqueous extract on viability of Echinococcus granulosus protoscolices.  J Invest Surg. 2013 Dec;26(6):347-51

4). Grieve, M. (1971).  A Modern Herbal. New York, NY: Dover Publications, Inc.

5). Jacquelyn Villinski, Elizabeth Dumas, Hee-Byung Chai, John Pezzuto, Cindy Angerhofer, Stefan Gafner.  Antibacterial activity and alkaloid content of Berberis thunbergii, B. vulgaris, and Hydrastiscanadensis.  Pharmaceutical Biology. 2003; Vol 41, No.8:551-57

6). Moerman, D.E. (1998).  Native American Ethnobotany.  Portland, OR: Timber Press

7). Garrett, J.T (2003).  The Cherokee Herbal. Rochester, Vermont: Bear & Company

8). Hobbs, C. Keville, K. (2007).  Women’s Herbs Women’s Health.  Santa Cruz, CA: Botanica Press.

9). Foster, S.  Duke, James (2000).  Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants and Herbs.  BostonNew York: Houghton Mifflin Company