Berberis Vulgaris (or Common Barberry) is one of a genus-of plants of the Natural Order Berberidaceae; Linnean system, Hexandria Monogynia. All the species, which are numerous and found in temperate climates in most parts of the world, except Australia, are shrubs, with yellow flowers having a calyx of six leaves, a corolla of six petals, and six stamens, which, when touched at the base, display a considerable degree of irritability, starting up from their ordinary position of reclining upon the petals and closing upon the pistil—apparently a provision to secure fecundation. The fruit is a berry with two or three seeds, not a few of the species being evergreen. They are divided into two sub-genera, sometimes ranked as genera, those with simple leaves forming the sub-genus—Berberis; and those with pinnate leaves the sub-genus, Mahonia, or Ash-leaved Barberry. The Common Barberrv (Berberis Vulgaris) is a native of the most temperate parts of Europe, Asia, and North America. It produces its flowers, and fruit in pendulous racemes, has obovate, slightly serrate, deciduous leaves, and numerous straight three-forked thorns. It is a very ornamental shrub, especially when covered with fruit. Its berries are of an elongated oval form; when ripe, generally of a bright-red colour, more rarely whitish, yellow, or almost black. They contain free malic acid. The fruit of the ordinary varieties is too acid to be eaten, but makes excellent preserves and jelly. Malic acid is rather extensively prepared from it in France.
A yellow fungus, Aecidium Berberidis, is very general upon the under-side of the leaves of the Barberry, and a notion prevails that it produces rust in corn, which is erroneous, the rust of corn being a totally different fungus, which, like this, is apt to appear in humid weather. (It's since been proven that common barberry is the intermediate host for wheat rust. -Henriette) The prevalence of this notion, however, appears to have prevented the general employment of the Barberry as a hedge plant, for which it is admirably adapted. Hedges made of it are easily kept free from gaps, and become more and more impervious by new shoots thrown up from the root. The yellow root of the Barberry is used as a yellow dye (especially the inner bark of it), and also of the stem and branches. The bark is capable of being employed for tanning leather. Most of the species are more or less spiny, and some of the evergreen species might be very ornamentally employed for hedge plants, as Berberis Dulcis (Berberis buxifolia, Berberis microphylla), now frequent in shrubberies in Britain. This species, sometimes called the sweet Barberry, is a native of the South-west Coast of America. Its leaves much resemble those of the Common Barberry; it has solitary flowers on rather long stalks, and globose black berries about the size of a common black currant. The fruit is produced very copiously in Britain. It is quite sweet when fully ripe, and makes excellent jelly. When unripe and very acid, it is used for tarts.
Berberis Vulgaris, a bushy shrub, grows from 3 to 4 feet high, but the writer of this article has seen specimens which had attained a height of from 12 to 16 feet and a trunk 8 to 10 inches in diameter. One may be seen to-day in a field about half-way between Gisburn and Hellifield, just off the main road, at least 12 feet high. Dr. John Skelton, in his "Botanic Record and Family Herbal," published in 1855, page 73, in his remarks on Barberry, says: "I remember when lecturing in the town of Burnley, seeing the remains of what was once a large and flourishing tree. It was entirely stripped and dead. Mr. G. Stanisworth, who was with me at the time, gave me the following history of the stump: 'Some seven years since' (said he) 'Dr. Coffin was giving a course of lectures in this town, and upon one occasion he spoke of the medicinal properties of the Barberry. This tree was then in flourishing condition, but our townsmen knew nothing of its virtues until Dr. Coffin made them acquainted with it, and it was no sooner known than ere a week had passed 'Mr. Barberry' was stripped, and there he stands, a monument of excess. It was in vain that the proprietor sought to protect the tree, either by threats or law—our chaps had marked him, and it was sacrificed upon the altar of public good. We mourn over the remains and never pass without thinking upon the manner in which we were made acquainted with the Barberry.'"
Barberry is not only an ornamental shrub, but at the same time a fruit tree, a hedge plant, a dye and drug tree, and when covered with flowers in Spring or with fruit in Autumn it is a fine object and well worth seeing. The smell of the flowers seems to be a little offensive when one is near them, but very pleasant when one is a short distance away. The Barberry, however, is generally cultivated for the sake of its fruit or berries, which are pickled and used for garnishing dishes, and when boiled with sugar make an agreeable preserve and jelly. They may also be used by confectioners for making sugar-plums and comfits, as the fruit contains free mallic and citric acids. Linnaeus observed that when bees, in search of honey, touched the filaments, the anthers approximate to the stigma, exploded the pollen, which impregnated it. The same effect may also be produced by touching the filaments with a bit of stick or a pin. The plant flowers in June, is perennial, and grows in woods and hedges.
The active principle of Barberry is Berberine, derived from Berberis vulgaris; Natural Order, Berberidaceae; sexual system, Class six, Hexandria; order, first Monogynia; common name, Barberry; part used, the inner bark and bark of the root, the berries, and also the wood of the plant broken up into chips. The number of therapeutic principles are four—namely, resin, resinoid, alkaloid, and neutral; the properties are tonic, cathartic, antiseptic, antacid, diuretic, resolvent, detergent, stomachic, chologogue, and sub-astringent.
It is employed in fevers, loss of appetite, obstructions of the kidneys and bladder, splenic affections, diseases of the liver, yellow jaundice and thirsty diabetes, sore eyes, and affections of the mouth and throat. It may be used in infusion, decoction, fluid extract, solid extract, in tincture, powder, pills, ointment, or syrup. A piece of the bark placed in the mouth and chewed on the hottest day in summer, however dry or thirsty you may be, will slake your thirst by making the saliva run or flow from the salivary glands of the mouth. Barberry exercises an especial influence over the mucous surfaces, its action in this being so manifest that the indications for its employment cannot be mistaken. Upon the liver it acts with equal certainty and efficacy. As a chologogue and a deobstruent it has few equals; in affections of the spleen, mesentery, and abdominal viscera generally, it is an efficient and reliable remedy. In the treatment of chronic derangements of the liver and portal circulation, the bark, when boiled and then made into a syrup, and used freely as a drink, will be found excellent in cases of diarrhoea and dysentery, fluxes, and malignant fevers. For abating the heat, quenching the thirst, raising the strength, and preventing putrefaction, scarcely its equal is to be found in any other remedy, as it promotes secretions, expels and removes morbid matter from the stomach and bowels. Taken either in infusion, decoction, or syrup, it becomes an excellent remedy in thirsty diabetes; also an aperient for the bowels in case of constipation. Dr. Coffin, in his "Botanic Guide to Health," pages 116 and 117 (published in 1885, 28th edition), says of Barberry:—"The bitter principle contained in this bark approaches the nearest to healthy bile of any substance that we know in Nature. We once tried the following experiment. We took a quantity of bullock's gall and saturated 4 ozs. of Spirits of Wine with it. We also made a Tincture of Barberry Bark, using the bark when green (that is, fresh bark), and when the spirit was impregnated by each we could not find the smallest perceptible difference in taste; they were, in fact, alike in every particular, from which we infer that this bark, which so nearly resembles the healthy bile, must be an excellent corrector of a diseased or vitiated liver. We have acted upon the experimental lesson thus derived from the book of Nature and have never found it to fail, for it is seldom that Nature deceives her followers. "He also says: "Barberry may be taken alone or compounded with other articles, and as a corrector of the secretion of the liver it stands in the whole catalogue of remedies without a rival. It sometimes acts as an emetic, or produces nausea, which arises more from its coming into contact with the offending matter than from its possessing the properties of an emetic, for, when the stomach is diseased the most nutritious food is frequently rejected, and as wholesome and proper food cannot be retained, we need not feel surprised that this general corrector should be ejected from the stomach when too weak to retain it." This bark is good for those who are troubled with indigestion or dyspepsia. The use of it along with cayenne pepper generally removes nervous dyspepsia after an attack of fever, particularly if the patient has been reduced by depletion. Barberry Bark will be found much more efficacious than the wine and bark usually administered for this purpose. It may be pulverised and compounded with Ginger Root, Cayenne, and some of the astringent medicines, a teaspoonful of which, when taken in a little hot water, makes an excellent corrective powder. It is also a grand ornamental plant.
Barberry is useful for inlaying purposes by joiners and cabinetmakers, as the wood is hard and takes a splendid polish; and the thick stems will also be found useful for making walking-sticks. If, when out walking with them on a hot day, those using them become thirsty, they have nothing to do but to bite a bit off the stick and chew it, and it will slake their thirst immediately. Then, when the walking-stick is of no more use, it can be broken up and used as a medicine for the purposes referred to above.
Common Plants and their Uses in Medicine was written by Richard Lawrence Hool, F.N.A.M.H., in 1922.