Botanical and Common Names
- Family Berberidaceae
- Berberis aquifolium syn. Mahonia aquifolia (Wild Oregon Grape, Rocky Mountain Grape, Mountain Oregon Grape, Trailing Mahonia, Sourberry, Berberry, Holley-Leaved Berberry, Berberis, Oregon Berberina, Oregon Grape Root, Berberitze)
- Berberis vulgaris (Barberry, Berberry, Pipperidge, Jaundice Berry, Sow Berry, Mountain Grape)
- An overdose of the root bark can cause diarrhea, kidney irritation, light stupor, nosebleeds, and vomiting. High doses taken internally can result in nausea, headaches, and lowered blood sugar.
- Because of the alkaloid action on the heart and uterine muscles, pregnant women, or those with heart disease, should avoid this herb.
- Take for no more than four to six weeks at a time without a break.
The Oregon Grape is one of over 450 species native to North America and found growing in the Rocky Mountains up to 7,000 feet and in the woods from Colorado to the Pacific Coast. It is particularly abundant in Oregon and northern California, through to British Columbia, in Canada. It is an evergreen shrub, growing to about six feet, producing shiny heaves, small, yellowish-green flowers, and, in the autumn, purple berries.
Barberry is a thorny, deciduous shrub, growing to ten feet with leathery leaves, yellow flowers, and red berries in autumn. Although used interchangeably medicinally, Oregon Grape is thought to be the stronger of the two species.
According to the Doctrine of Signatures, if a plant resembles part of the human anatomy, it was made for that purpose. Therefore, the barberry is considered to be good for the liver because of its distinctive electric yellow bark. Since yellow is the first indication that the liver is ailing, barberry was used to treat liver malfunctions.
Native Americans used a decoction of the bitter-tasting root for appetite loss and debility.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Oregon Grape was prescribed as a detoxifier and tonic. It was an important herb in the Physiomedicalist movement, who based their therapies on a combination of orthodox and Native American practices.
In ancient Egypt, barberries were macerated with fennel seed to make a drink used for fevers.
Although extremely sour, Barberries were used in the past to make preserves, including the French confiture d’epine vinette.
Called the Oregon Grape in North America, barberries were introduced to the US by Europeans and used extensively by Native Americans, who ate the berries raw or made them into a jam. As well as a medicine, the root was used raw or boiled as a flavouring in stew. The wood and bark made a yellow dye. The Catawba used the herb for peptic ulcers. The Blackfeet peeled the root, dried it, and made an infusion to stop rectal hemorrhage and dysentery. By adding fennel seed, the bitterness was made a little more palatable. Barberry often grows naturally alongside another plant called Pipsissewa. Both plants were used in combination to treat any acute or chronic illness.
Barberry came into common usage when Parke, Davis, and Company offered a product for sale to physicians in the late 1900s as a treatment for such infectious diseases as typhoid and early-stage tuberculosis.
In the Southwest, Spanish colonials found a variety and called it Palo Amarillo or Fremont’s barberry (Mahonia fremontii). It looks more like a holly tree with blue berries rather than red. Native Americans used it for tuberculosis, rheumatism, and jaundice. Considered a cooling plant. It was also used to treat such things as fevers, hepatitis, and malaria.
In upstate New York, colonists found another variety, the Canadian barberry (Berberis canadensis), which was used like other barberries.
- digestive aid
- mildly laxative
- stimulates bile secretion and peristalsis
- isoquinoline alkaloids (including berberine, berbamine, and hydrastine)
- antioxidants in the berries (especially vitamin C)
Root (Oregon Grape), stem bark, root bark, and berries (Barberry)
Berberine is a noted antimicrobial proving effective against bacteria, fungi, and other organisms that can cause diarrhea and other infections.
Barberry also contains important anticancer compounds called dehydropodophyllotoxin and podophyllotoxin.
Berbamine, another alkaloid, appears to bolster immunity.
Scientists have also discovered sedative and anticonvulsant properties in some of the components, as well as substances that may help lower blood pressure and reduce muscle spasms.
A tincture is used to stimulate bile secretions.
A decoction of the fruits is used to treat lung, spleen, and liver diseases. It is also an effective, and gentle, wash for the eyes, if sufficiently diluted.
Jams made from the berries are used to relieve constipation and stimulate the appetite.
Juices have been used to stimulate the immune system, treat feverish colds, and diseases of the urinary tract.
Syrups can be used for coughs.
Washes from a root decoction are used for cuts and bruises.
Oregon Grape bark was traditionally used to treat a wide variety of diseases, including liver malfunctions, gallbladder disease, jaundice, splenopathy, indigestion, diarrhea, tuberculosis, piles, renal disease, urinary tract disorders, gout, rheumatism, arthritis, lumbago, malaria, and leishmaniasis.
The yellow root is used as a hepatic stimulant that increases the flow of bile through the liver and gallbladder. As the bile acts like a detergent and flows freely, it cleanses and filters out toxic wastes. Barberries help such conditions as spleen enlargement, gallbladder pain, gallstones, as well as jaundice and hepatitis. An underestimated herb, it has also been used as a general tonic to improve the absorption of nutrients. Barberry is often combined with such bitter herbs as wild yam, dandelion, and licorice root as a treatment for digestive conditions.
Barberries are strongly antiseptic and invaluable in cases of amebic dysentery, cholera, and other similar gastrointestinal infections. When taken in small amounts, the bark extract helps treat diarrhea, while in larger amounts, is an effective laxative.
Oregon grape is thought to reduce the severity of psoriasis and also is used to treat other skin conditions, including eczema, boils, acne, and herpes.
The Chinese use seventeen different barberry varieties in their medicine. All contain berberine, a noted antibacterial. The plants are used mainly to treat various intestinal infections, as well as to stimulate the uterus and to relax the intestinal smooth muscle. Since berberine is not absorbed well orally, the alkaloids or extracts are often used.
The berries can be made into pies or jams and the tender greens used as a salad vegetable. The wood was used in the making of bright yellow clothing dye.