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Common Name: Barberry | Scientific Name: Berberis Vulgaris

Family Name: Berberidaceae


Chapter from “Thirty Plants That Can Save Your Life”
Notes from the Eclectic Physicans

Chapter from “Thirty Plants That Can Save Your Life”

You probably have this next plant somewhere in the front yard. Having worked as a landscape designer, I installed hundreds and thousands of barberries in yards around the country. I never liked them as I found them painful to the touch. Like the name implies, the barberry bush is covered with barbs that are more than happy to stick in your skin. Unbeknownst to me, and to most homeowners with berberis sitting in their front yards, the barberry is one of the most famous herbal health givers in the world, and I do mean the world.

If you have ever done any reading on the topic of herbalism you are bound to have come across this notion called the doctrine of signatures. In days gone by, like 500 years or so, herbalists around the world felt that plants that looked like the afflicted part were bound to be good for the ailing bit. This is referred to as the Doctrine of Signatures. They felt that God had revealed the use of the plant by making it look like the part of the body it treated. If you had a bad heart, you were treated with tomatoes as the tomato looks loosely like the heart. I know this is a stretch,
but the tomato has sections inside it that look kind like the valves in a heart. This notion seems utterly absurd, completely ridiculous. To me nothing could be more silly and naive.

OK, what’s the point and what does this have to do with our spiny friend? Its wood and its root have a distinctive yellow color. I mean to say it is electric yellow. When the liver goes bad and stops cleansing the blood the first symptom is the patient turns a lovely shade of yellow. Anyone who has had hepatitis knows what this yellow cast is like. During the days when herbalists used the doctrine of signatures, liver malfunction was treated with barberry. They felt God signaled them to use the plant for jaundice by making the barberry root yellow. Much to my surprise, the barberry does, in fact, help the liver out in a big way. The yellow root of the barberry is used as a hepatic biliary stimulant. Some elements of the barberry enhance the flow of bile through the liver and gall bladder. Bile is the detergent of the liver, and as it flows freely, the liver is able to cleanse the blood more effectively. The liver in fine form thus cleanses the blood more effectively.

If no one has ever filled you in, the liver is one part of the body that you do not want to fool with. When the liver goes so do you. Essentially the liver’s job in this life is to clean the impurities out of the blood so they don’t stay in the body. In a nutshell the liver gets all the bad stuff out of your body, and in a very simplistic view, getting the bad stuff out of the body is as important since if the liver doesn’t get it out, it does bad stuff to you, like kill you. The liver filters out things like artificial preservatives, alcohol, and other environmental toxins. In this modern world our diets burden the liver, and we need to take care of this crucial part of the body. And like the ancients once said, barberry is good for the liver.

In the “good housewife physicke”, 1573, the written word suggests, the barberry is good for anyone that is sick. As this book of household medical hints suggests, the use goes far beyond liver treatment and a tidy list of other uses might look like this:

alcohol abuse
biliary infections
bronchial congestion
exposure to drugs, chemicals, industrial pollutants
hepatic stimulant
liver disease of all sorts
poor digestion
serious illness
splenic enlargements
skin diseases
stimulating digestive tonic

Is this a new plant on the scene of staying well? Oh no, Discorides, Pliny, Celsus, and Galen, the old time masters of health all kept a ready supply around for health purposes. We are talking about a plant in constant use since before the year 1 after the death of Jesus Christ.

The Alexandrians imported it from India and to such an extent the rulers of the day imposed a duty on it in the years between 176 a.d. and 180 a.d. In the world of archeology several vases of preserved barberries have been found in Greece . Celsus mentions a Heraclides of Tarentum as being a specialist of the day in treating eye problems. It is interesting to note that on some of the ancient jars of barberries found in Greece , Heraclides’ label can be found stamped on. Galen himself felt that barberries were an excellent treatment for the eyes. The ancient Arabian physicians were quite keen on barberry, its root and its berries.

Somehow in the zoom of the modern world we have forgotten all about the barberry, it is now merely a shrub landscape designers like me plant by the thousands as cheap shrub material. This one is worth a little more research.

The barberry is a large family of plants, with members on every continent. All cultures that have barberries growing in their presence use them for maintaining strength and vitality, which is what this is all about. I thought we would take a little look at the different barberries in our midst that might help us live stronger a little longer.

In North America , the oregon grape is the native barberry. The plant prefers a shady location and the Native Americans gathered it in great quantities to be used for tonic purposes. The Shoshone tribe called the oregon grape kawsanup, paiute, or ch cow cow, and the Warm Springs tribe called it oti to que. The Native American use from tribe to tribe was about the same. It was used to treat what we might call debility, the loss of vigor, the wind leaking out of someone’s sail. When people lost strength and energy, the medicine man attributed this to poor blood and suggested the patient use oregon grape as a blood tonic. The yellow wood was thought to be a blood purifier and a stomach tonic to boot. Here are some of the conditions they used to treat with oregon grape:

heart burn
heart disease
kidney ailments
lack of appetite

Oregon grape grows naturally with a plant called pippissewa and the two roots were used by the Indians in combination to treat any acute or chronic illness. The Blackfeet Indians peeled the root, dried it out, and used a tea to stop rectal hemorrhage and dysentery. They saw it as the best stomach healer and tonic this side of the rockies.

One recipe for hepatitis includes oregon grape, dandelion, and a little fennel seed to make the mixture a little more palatable. These three plants were boiled in a tea and several cups taken each day during the acute phase of the disease. The Native Americans discovered that the use of the oregon grape root in tea kept fevers from returning and discovered that it cured people who suffered from recurrent fevers.

In a nutshell, the oregon grape was used by the Native Americans to put the whistle back in people who had lost their zip. Have you ever gone though a work phase or a life phase that made you feel all wiped out? You know one of those phases where it all happens at the same time, work, family, and hobby all explode in your face at the same time. The dog gets sick, your boss says you are not spending enough time at the office, the kids are turning into delinquents because you are not spending enough time with them, your husband is having an affair, and there is no food in the fridge because you haven’t had time to shop in two weeks, and you don’t have a vacation in the schedule for a few months, so you have to keep on plugging. I call this modern debility. The point at which you only have enough energy to watch the boob tube, and that’s not an option, is the point at which the medicine man would hand you a bag ofr oregon grape and tell you to start boiling.

The oregon grape was put into the Pharmacopeia of the United States after physicians were filled in on it by the Native Americans.

As a standardized product, the medicine was first introduced to conventional medicine by Dr. Bundy, an eclectic physician from California . The product was brought into common usage when the drug company, Parke, Davis and Company, of Detroit , Michigan , offered a product for sale to physicians containing this plant. Doctor Bundy pushed the plant as he had experienced its usefulness in his domestic practice and, of course, he learned of it from the Native Americans.

In the Southwest, the Spanish colonials came onto yet another barberry, Palo Amarillo or Fremont ‘s barberry, a close relation to the oregon grape, its scientific name being, Mahonia fremontii.

The Native Americans graciously introduced them to their favorite vitality plant, palo amarillo , which translates to yellow wood, is a tall shrub that looks quite like a holly tree, save the berries are blue rather than red. The Spanish colonials came onto it growing on the rocky slopes between Cerillos and Golden, New Mexico .

The roots were boiled and added to a bath prepared for tubercular patients, nine baths to effect a cure. Pieces of the branches were boiled in water to treat rheumatism and pains in the ribs, the body was bathed with the tea, three nights in a row. The patient also drank some of the tea while taking the baths. The treatment for jaundice was much the same. It was considered a cold plant, and as such appropriate for treating any fever, hepatitis and malaria included. In days gone by, two crosses were made of the yellow wood and worn to protect the wearer from being hit with a bolt of lightening. This made traveling around the storm filled Southwest a little more secure we suppose.

In the Spanish American community the plant is called yerba de la sangre, referring to its ability to cleanse and tone the liver, thus leading to healthier blood. It is also used to treat anemia as when the liver is functioning well, it releases ample amounts of iron into the blood. Old folk medicine suggests menstruating women use barberry in and around their period, to keep the iron content up while they are losing blood.

In upstate New York the colonials found a different barberry, the Canadian barberry, berberis canadensis, and it was used just like all the other barberries around the world, the berries being cooked in pies and used in jellies, the tender greens used in salad and the wood used to make a bright yellow dye.

Moving to the other side of the globe, the Indians from India use Berberis Aristata Berberis Lycium. These barberry bushes grow abundantly in the Himalayas where the root bark, the part used in Indian medicine, is collected freely. Once collected it is shipped to the urban centers all over India .

The Indians buy barberry roots licorice stick sized pieces, having the yellow color and bitter taste characteristic of all barberry plants. The roots can be bought at the bazaars and an extract, dubbed, rusot is also sold by the herb merchants. Like with all the barberry clan, the Indians feel that the active principle is berberine, found in great quantities in the root bark. The Indians use the plant as a therapeutic sweat inducer and as a general tonic. It is widely used in recurring fevers such as malaria. It is considered just as good as quinine in treating fever, with the advantage that it doesn’t depress the central nervous system, can be given during the fever, and doesn’t cause deafness. A product called by the Indians rasaut, is made to treat problems with the eyes, being bathed over the eye lids. Just around the corner, in Pakistani medicine, Berberis lycium is boiled to make a solution to be used in opthamolia, the fruit is used as a cooling agent and as a mild laxative. Both the Indians and the Pakistanis see the barberry as the supreme tonic for treating kidney, liver, and infectious fevers.

While we are in the mood, let’s take a look at what the Chinese have to say about the barberry. On this stop we really have a collection of barberries to learn about, the Chinese use at least 17 different barberries as tonics. Here are just a few of the barberries that end up in medicine in China:

Berberis amurensis
berberis thunderbergii: shan shi liu: the mountain pomegranate
berberis amurensis: amur barberry
berberis sargentiana: chinese barberry
berberis vulgaris
diphylleia sinensis
dyosoma auranticocaulis
dyosoma pleiantha: chinese may apple
dyosoma versipellis
epimedium acuminatum
epimedium grandiflorum
jeffersonia dubia
leontice robustum
mahonia bealei
mahonia fortunei
mahonia japonica
nandina domestica

As we have already said, the Chinese are eons ahead of Western medicine in the staying well department, manifest in the fact they use 17 barberries as compared to our meager one variety, the common barberry. The Chinese see the barberry as a plant that when used regularly leads to a long and healthy life. Now on a scientific level the Chinese have checked out the plants and have found that there is basis in fact for the plant’s use in longevity. The principle chemical in barberry is berberine, and this snappy chemical has been found to be quite interesting.

- Berberine has been clinically proven to kill bacteria, stop diarrhea, stop convulsions, stimulate the uterus, and relax the smooth muscles of the intestine.

- Since berberine is not appreciably absorbed following oral administration, the alkaloid or extracts of plants containing it are often used for the treatment of various enteric infections, especially bacillary dysentery.

- Contains the important anticancer compounds dehydor-podophyllotoxin and podophyllotoxin. Both oncogenic and antitumor, showing activity it the ps, wa, and kb tumor systems.

Now along these lines of living a long time, many of the barberries have been found to be aphrodisiac in nature, apparently so stimulating to the body, all it wants to do is procreate. One of the members of the family, epimedium, is considered the best in this vein, said to increase the number of erections that can be had each night, and increase the number of sperm in each ejaculate and the size of the ejaculate itself. Interesting information, as when the body is healthy, a normal sex drive usually results. Several members are used to treat forgetfulness, another symptom of waning vitality.

The ancient as well as modern Arabian physicians were acquainted with the barberry. In Arabia, berberis hispanica or Spanish barberry is used to promote liver function, reduce fever, and improve the health and clarity of the eyes. The yellow roots and bark are boiled to make a bitter tonic thought to jump start the blood and strengthen the liver.
In Europe the common barberry, as in the one sitting in your front yard, is well known as a treatment for the same illnesses all over the globe. A gypsy remedy suggests boiling one ounce of bark with a pint of water for twenty minutes, straining and taking a tablespoon four times a day for jaundice. The Russians use barberry for inflammation, abnormal bleeding, gall bladder problems, hypertension, lack of bile, and regulation of the female reproductive tract. The French make a jam out of the berberis and use it to boost the bodies of those finding them in a state of decline. Our friend Gerard had a few words to say about the common plant in 1633:

“The decoction thereof is good against hot burnings and cholericke agues: it allaieth the heate of the blood, and tempereth the overmuch heat of the liver.

“The fruit or berries are good for the same things, and be also profitable for hot laskes, and for the bloody fixe, and they stay all manner of superfluous bleedings.

“The green leaves of the Barberry much stamped, and made into sauce, as that made of Sorrell, called green sauce, doth cool hot stomachs, and those that are vexed with hot burning agues, and procureth appetite.

“The conserve made of the fruit and sugar performeth all those things before remembered, but with better force and success.

“The bark of the roots is also used in medicines for the jaundice, and that with good success.”

Just like the rest of the world, Gerard felt that barberry improved the general health, and quite successfully. As the Englishman made his way to the colonies, he dragged his own barberry with him.

As the white man traveled from East to West he came into contact with the Indians’ knowledge of indigenous plants, as is the case when the Mormons moved into Utah, which, believe it or not was already populated when they got there. In a catalogue of folk beliefs from Utah, a female informant, 73 years of age told a folklorist of a canker medicine made out of golden seal, grape root, peach leaves, barberry bark, honey and alum. The informant said that an old Indian living in Utah gave the secret recipe to Bringham Young, who in turn handed it out to the Mormon Pioneers.

The Shaker movement, most famous for its furniture, oddly enough was more famous in their heyday for their herbal remedies. The movement, founded by Ann Lee in England was transplanted to America in 1774. Ann Lee was born in the unhealthful urban squalor that was known as urban England. At the time, the urban environment was so unhealthy that only one in twenty-eight children lived to see forty, poverty and disease reigned supreme in these blackened coal towns.

A movement based on selflessness and service to the disadvantaged, the Shakers were all about doing good works. Ann Lee had worked in the public hospitals in England where people went to die, and at this point she firmly believed there had to be a better way to take care of the sick than that which was available at that time in industrial England. When she came to America with a handful of followers, health was clearly an issue in her mind, and when the these communities moved to the country, health became their primary business, selling health remedies.

In the New York Shaker communities in the 1850′s the common barberry, Berberis vulgaris, was one of their main medicinal herbs, the bark and the berries being used as a tonic, laxative, cooling agent. The Shakers felt barberry, especially the bark, was an effective tonic to ensure good health, and an excellent ingrediant in teas used to treat liver afflictions and cankers in the mouth. Mouth washes and gargles were founded on the barberry ingrediant.

Most of us think homeopathy is a new medical practice arriving onto the American health scene. It has a discipline that is, in fact, older than most of our current and entrenched medical establishment. The movement uses plants as treatments for illness and believe, in similimum, the single remedy and the minimum dose. They didn’t believe in using much medicine to treat an illness.

In a book entitled Leaders in Homeopathic Remedies written in 1899, the barberry appears and is said to be used when the following symptoms appear in the patient, “bruised pain with stiffness and lameness in the small of the back, raised from seat with difficulty, backache worse when sitting or lying, especially when lying in bed in the morning, sensation of numbness, stiffness, and lameness, with painful pressure in lumbar and renal regions. These pains sometimes extend all though the hips.”

“There is almost always in the back troubles of berberis, a great deal of prostrations of a sense of weakness across the back, and the face looks pale, earthy complexion, with sunken cheeks and hollow eyes, with blue circles under them. No matter what ails the patient, if he has persistent pain as above described in the region of the kidneys, do not forget berberis.”

Notes from the Eclectic Physicians

1854: John King. The American Eclectic Dispensatory. Moore , Wilstach, and Keys.
Properties and Uses – Tonic and laxative. Used extensively by practitioners in the New England States, in all cases where tonics are indicated, also in jaundice, and chronic diarrhea and dysentery. The berries form an agreeable acidulous draught, useful as a refrigerant in fevers, also beneficial in dysentery, cholera-infantum, diarrhea, etc. The bark is bitter and astingent, and has been used with advantage as a tonic, and has proved efficacious in the treatment of jaundice. The bark of the root is the most active; a teaspoonful of the powder will act as a purgative. A decoction of the bark or berries, has been found of service as a wash or gargle in aphthous sore-mouth, and in chronic opthalmia.

1874: John M. Scudder.Specific Medication and Specific Medicines. Revised. Fifth Edition.
A tincture of the recent bark, in the proportion of 3viij. to Alcohol 76degree Oj., is suggested. Dose varying from ten drops to one drachm.
Will some of our Eastern practitioners give us their experience with this agent; or if it has not been employed alone, will some one test it thoroughly. Evidently it has an influence upon the gastro-intestinal mucous membrane, and probably on associate viscera.

1883: Scudder: (tonic)
The bark and berries of berberis vulgaris ‑ U.S. Preparation: Tincture of Berberis. Dose: From five drops to one drachm. Therapeutic Action: It is tonic, stomachic, laxative, antiseptic and astringent. It is an energetic tonic, and although laxative, is at the same time astringent. It is useful in dyspepsia, especially when connected with a torpid state of the liver and constipation of the bowels; promotes digestion, and seems to increase the assimilating functions.

1898: Webster
The barberry possesses a reputation of old for its excellence in hepatic torpor. It belongs to the class with chionanthus, in its property of improving the functional activity of the bile-secreting cells. Where there is no obstruction to the free passage of bile along the biliary ducts this agent acts as a gentle stimulant to the secretory processes of the biliary cells, and is an effective remedy in jaundice.
This remedy also improves the functional powers of the stomach, and acts well in dyspepsia especially where the hepatic torpor is a concomitant. It acts gently on the bowels, and is a purgative in large doses. In doses just short of this influence it improves the functional power of the duodenum and relieves intestinal dyspepsia.

Barberry has been recommended to relieve pain during the passage of gall-stones.

Form for Administration- A decoction of the recent bark, or the tincture from a homeopathic pharmacy.

Dose- Of the decoction, a teaspoonful four or five times a day. In some cases a tablespoonful may be required to effect the desired purpose. The tincture may be given by adding half a drachm to four ounces of water and giving a teaspoonful every three hours.

1909: Kings’ Dispensatory. Felter and Lloyd. Ohio Valley Publishing Company.
History – This shrub, a native of Europe, and natururalized in Asia, is found in the New England States, on the mountains of Pennsylvania and Virginia , among rocks, and in hard, gravelly soils; occasionally it is found in the West on rich grounds. It flowers from April to June, and ripens its fruit in June. “It is frequently planted in gardens and prized for the beautiful bunches of red berries which hang after the leaves have fallen. The plant is generally a shrub from 2 to 8 feet high, although Loudon is authority that ‘there are examples of trees 30 feet in height’ and that ‘they live for two or three centuries.’ The wood contains a yellow, bitter coloring matter, and is sometimes used as a dye. The flowers are in pendulous racemes and appear in May or June. The leaves are obovate, bristly serrate, tapering at the base to a very short petiole. They are agreeably acid, resembling in this respect the leaves of the Nat. Ord. – Oxalidaceae. The French name for barberry, Epine vinette, means literally an acid thorn. The fruit is a bright scarlet berry, and has an intensely, yet agreeably acid taste. It is said to make excellent preserves; was highly esteemed by the ancients, and probably would be now, if other fruits had not been cultivated to such a degree of excellence. The name berberys seems to have been first applied to this fruit by Averroes, an Arabic writer on medicine, who wrote in the Twelfth century” (Berberidaceae, by C. G. and J. U. Lloyd, P.5). Barberry bark, it is stated, has been used as an adulterant of pomegranite root bark.

Action, Medical Uses, and Dosage – “Berberis vulgaris, a native of Europe , is now quite common in this country, and for many years has been in domestic use as a medicine. A tea made from the bark is taken during the spring months as a blood purifier. A strong decoction is employed as an application to the sores which sometimes afflict children’s lips, and in certain conditions of the system demanding tonic tratement, the infusion is a favorite remedy. The fluid extract is usually administered. It is readily prepared by those having the proper facilities, and can easily be made to represent the bark, fluid ounce to troy ounce. It is more satisfactory in its action than the alkaloid berberine” (Lloyd’s Berberidaceae). Berberis is a tonic and laxative. Formerly used extensively by practitioners in the New England States, in all cases where tonics are indicated, also in jaundice, and chronic diarrhea and dysentery. The berries form an agreeable acidulous draught, useful as a refrigerant in fevers, also beneficial in dysentery, cholera infantum, diarrhoea, etc. The bark is bitter and astringent, and has been used with advantage as a tonic. The bark of the root is the most active; a teaspoonful of the powder will act as a purgative. A decoction of the bark or berries, has been found of service as a wash in aphthous sore mouth, and in chronic ophthalmia.

Webster declares it of value in jaundice when there is no obstruction of the bile ducts, and in doses short of purgative stimulates the duodenal functions, relieving intestinal dyspepsia. Small doses are also palliative in renal calculi, and in soreness, burning, and other unpleasant sensations of the urinary tract.

1911 J.U.Lloyd. History of the Vegetable Drugs of the Pharmacopia of the United States . Bulletin number 18: pharmacy number 4.
The berberis officially recorded in the Pharmacopeia of the United States (Berberis aquifolium, or mahonia), was introduced to medicine by Dr. Bundy, an Eclectic physician of California, who brought it to the attention of physicians (467) through the manufacturing establishment of Parke, Davis and Company, of Detroit, Michigan. This variety had previously been used throughout the Western States as a domestic remedy in the direction commended by Dr. Bundy, and in many respects it paralleled the domestic and official uses of its near relatives in the Orient and elsewhere.

The Pharmacopeia of India recognizes three species of barberry under the common name berberis. These species of barberry have domestic records as tonics dating from the earliest times, being used in decoction or infusion in inflammatory discharges, as well as in applications for various forms of ophthalmic inflammation. The Arabian physicians employed this plant. Dioscorides (194), Pliny (514), Celsus (136), Galen (254a), and others recognized it. It was one of the Indian drugs on which the Alexandrians levied duty, A.D. 176-180. Among Greek antiquities are preserved small vases of barberry, showing its value in ancient times. A certain Haraclides of Tarentum is mentioned by Celsus as having a reputation for treating diseases of the eye, and among the vases of barberry above referred to, is one bearing the label of this person. In formulas for eye diseases given by Galen (254a), barberry is authoritatively recognized. The natives of India use an extract made from various species growing in Northern India, this extract being sold in the bazaars under the name Rusot, and used not only in affections of the eye, but as a tonic and febrifuge. The qualities of both the official drug and its foreign relatives are similar and were introduced by the common people.

Disclaimer: The author makes no guarantees as to the the curative effect of any herb or tonic on this website, and no visitor should attempt to use any of the information herein provided as treatment for any illness, weakness, or disease without first consulting a physician or health care provider. Pregnant women should always consult first with a health care professional before taking any treatment.