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Barbed and Barred Barberry

By Audrey Stallsmith

berberis vulgaris

The bush that has most briers and bitter fruit
Waits till the frost has turned its green leaves red,
Its sweetened berries will thy palate suit,
And thou mayst find e'en there a homely bread;
Upon the hills of Salem scattered wide,
Their yellow blossoms gain the eye in Spring;
And straggling e'en upon the turnpike's side,
Their ripened branches to your hand they bring. .
.

Jones Very, "The Barberry-Bush"

Farmers used to expel barberry from the vicinity of their fields, as if the plant were possessed.  And, in a way, it was.  Barberry can harbor a wheat fungus called stem rust . 

After an epidemic of that rust in 1916, the U. S. declared war on the family berberis not long after it declared war on Germany.  Most native barberries, berberis canadensis (the American type) and berberis vulgaris (which had been brought to America by European settlers) were  almost entirely eradicated from the midwestern states.

Berberis derives from the Arabic "shell," supposedly in reference to the plant's shiny leaves.  Canadensis, of course, means Canadian and vulgaris means "common."  The plant has also been called piperidge or pepperidge, which derives from the French pepin ("pip" or "seed") and rouge ("red").     

Those barberries marketed as ornamentals today generally have to show resistance to stem rust.  As a strain of that rust is currently devastating wheat yields in Africa, we can see how important that rule is.  We might also be forced to conclude, however, that the world is much too dependent on wheat-- as well as corn--and should diversify its grain production a bit!

Since I live on a farm myself, I'll probably avoid planting even the Japanese ornamental types of barberry (berberis thunbergii) just to be on the safe side.  Popular as hedging shrubs, they were originally considered more innocent, but are now crowding out less vigorous native plants in many forest settings.

So it seems as if barberry is one of those prickly plants with which it is difficult to live comfortably.  That's a shame, since the tart and oblong fruits are edible, and were once used in similar fashion to cranberry--with lots of sugar added! 

In "The Fruit Shop," Amy Lowell described "a barberry slip/ Whose acrid, oval berries hung/ Like fringe and trembled." (They explain why the plant stands for "sourness of temper" in the Language of Flowers.)  High in natural pectin and Vitamin C, those berries are easily converted into jams and jellies, and make soothing syrups for coughs or sore throats.

The berberine in the plant's bark and roots also has many medical uses, as it stimulates appetite and the immune system, as well as being naturally antiseptic and astringent enough to cure diarrhea. It also reportedly lowers high blood pressure and cools fevers.  In The Healing Herbs, Michael Castleman describes barberry as being "more potent against bacteria than chloramphenical, a powerful pharmaceutical antibiotic."  It has been added to eyedrops to treat pinkeye, and was one of the herbs in the controversial Hoxsey Cancer formula.

The plant was once even called "Holy Thorn" in reference to its possible use in Christ's crown of thorns.  Also, its "golden" roots were sometimes lashed together to make crude crucifixes.

Barberries boast splendid autumn color too, in both leaves and berries.  As Mary Aldis wrote in "Barberries:"

They are not afraid     
Of being warm and glad and bold;  
They flush joyously,  
Like a cheek under a lover's kiss;  
They bleed cruelly  
Like a dagger wound in the breast.
They flame up madly for their little hour,
Knowing they must die.
Do you love barberries?

Before you answer the question, consider that berberine can be purgative (violently laxative).  That generally indicates a plant which is somewhat toxic. Castleman warns that, "in high doses, barberry can cause nausea, vomiting, convulsions, hazardous drops in blood pressure, and depression of heart rate and breathing."   

So this "good" bush can't seem to get rid of its dark side.  Despite its having so much to offer, the chances of barberry being barred again in the future for its invasiveness seem pretty high.

And, even back in the 1800's, Jones Vry finished his poem about barberries somewhat bitterly, saying:


I've plucked them oft in boyhood's early hour,
That then I gave such name, and thought it true;
But now I know that other fruit as sour,
Grows on what now thou callst Me and You;
Yet wilt thou wait the autumn that I see,
Will sweeter taste than these red berries be.

 

Berberis vulgaris image is by the National Geographic Society, courtesy of the Southwest School of Botanical Medicine.