Synonyms: Berbery, Pipperidge Bush, European Barberry, Jaundice-berry, Piprage
Scientific Name: Berberis vulgaris L.
Family: Berberidaceae (Barberry Family)
Asia, Asia Minor from Turkey to Afghanistan.
Fruits: vitamin C, sugar, fruit acids, minerals, trace elements. Roots: alkaloids, e.g. berberine.
Twice a year the thorny barberry bush catches our eye: in May and June when the bushes, which can reach a height of four metres, are covered over and over with clusters of yellow, sweet-scented flowers, and again from August into the winter when the pollinated flowers have grown into bright red, acid berries. Each individual berry is narrow and cylindrical in shape. Together they clothe the bush in a mantle of colour which is the last thing to remain on the bush at the end of the year even after all the leaves have been shed. The fruits become more and more acid as they ripen. The flower colour is found again inside the plant. The wood and particularly the roots are bright yellow to orange in colour. The bush is densely covered with thorns, standing singly or in groups, which are in origin actually transformed leaves. Barberry is found in hedges and bushy places, on sunny hills and slopes. All parts of the plant except for the ripe fruits are slightly poisonous because of the alkaloids they contain.
An extract of the root bark is beneficial for congestion of the liver and insufficient bile production, lack of appetite, constipation caused by a lack of bile, and in dry skin diseases. Jam or juice made from the ripe fruits stimulates the appetite. Homeopathy uses potentised extracts of the roots to supplement treatment of disorders of the renal pelvis, haemorrhoids and rheumatic diseases.
The generic name Berberis is derived from the Arabic word berberi = shell and describes the shape of the petals.
Incidentally, the flowers use an amazing trick for distributing pollen. As soon as a bee enters the nectar-rich flower and touches the stamens the latter spring inwards spraying their pollen over the bee, which thus pollinates the next flower it visits.
In the former Austrian monarchy the fruits were used to make a preserve taken in tea and acid drops called Weinscharl. The latter are still obtainable today from the k.u.k. Hofzuckerbäckerei Demel in Vienna. The Persians season meat and rice dishes with barberry fruits cooked in oil and sugar.
Barberry is a traditional dyer's plant. The bark of the roots and the trunk can be used to dye untreated wool, cotton and silk bright yellow. Traditional wooden toys made in Nuremberg were occasionally painted with a dye made from the bark. The juice pressed from the fruits dyes leather, wool, cotton, linen and silk pink with no mordant and carmine with a tin mordant. The juice is also used to make an ink and a food dye. The juice of the roots is used as a fluorescent dye in microscopy.
For a long time farmers used to plant barberry hedges as field boundaries. However, in the 1960s, when it was realized that barberry was an intermediate host of black rust (Puccina gramminis), a fungus that damages wheat, most of the barberry bushes in Germany fell victim to the axe.
The plant from another perspective
Wood and roots containing flower colour, leaves transformed into thorns, fruits that become increasingly acid as they ripen: things seem rather mixed up in this plant. But that is precisely what makes Barberry a potent medicinal herb. For this plant, a property which is so-to-speak in the wrong place does not mean a disease. The plant copes excellently with these displaced properties and veritably thrives.