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Understanding barberry: its properties, applications, and identification methods

Barberry is a notable medicinal plant, producing berries teeming with beneficial properties. Let's delve into its numerous virtues and the best ways to utilize it.

by BioGrow

The barberry is a wild plant that produces small edible berries. It’s considered a medicinal plant due to its rich beneficial properties. For this reason, it has been used in phytotherapy since ancient times. In our region, it can be found in many areas, though not everywhere. Due to its characteristic and robust thorns, it is also cultivated and used to form impenetrable hedges and to consolidate rugged terrains. It’s a very hardy plant and can withstand even the most challenging conditions.

Let’s get to know its features, medicinal properties, and the possible uses of the plant and berry better.

How to recognize barberry

Barberry berries
The common barberry, scientifically named Berberis vulgaris, is a small shrub belonging to the Berberidaceae family.

  • It doesn’t grow very tall, typically ranging between 1 and 3 meters.
  • It’s a deciduous shrub (losing its leaves in winter) with broad leaves.
  • It has erect and arched branches, with longitudinal striations and strong 3-pointed thorns. Young branches are brownish, while the bark of older branches is grayish, tending to peel off.
  • The leaves of barberry are grouped in bunches located at the base of the thorns and can be up to 6 cm long. They have a short stem, are curved at the tip, toothed, with spiny edges, dark green on the upper side, and lighter on the underside.
  • The flowers are hermaphroditic, yellow, and spherical, arranged in hanging clusters.
  • The fruits are typical coral-red berries, pleasing to the eye, with a stalk, elongated and ovoid shape. They somewhat resemble goji berries, cornelian cherries, or the miracle fruit. Inside, they contain between 2 to 5 seeds, enclosed in a hard brown shell. They mature in the summer, but initially taste very sour. It’s preferable to pick them in the fall when they start to wither and sweeten.

Where to find barberry: habitat and distribution

Being a very hardy species, barberry thrives in mountainous areas, rocky and stony environments, on slopes, in forest clearings, and abandoned pastures. It’s often found along the Alpine arc, while it’s more sporadic in other regions. It’s completely absent in Calabria, Sicily, and Sardinia. Notably, it’s susceptible to “rust”. Specifically, it’s an intermediate host for wheat rust, a fungal disease that affects cereals. For this reason, in areas where wheat and related crops are grown, it has been entirely eradicated. On the barberry plant, rust doesn’t cause significant damage, except for aesthetic issues.

Properties of barberry

The common barberry is an edible plant, rich in properties in all its parts, making it a true medicinal species.

  • It has sedative, antibacterial, antipyretic, hypotensive, anti-inflammatory, and hemostatic properties.
  • It’s very effective against certain pathogens and stimulates organs such as the liver, spleen, and uterus.
  • It’s used as a hemostatic for uterine hemorrhages. It helps promote bile flow and has excellent fever-reducing properties.
  • For malarial fevers, it acts as an adjunct and enhancer to the activity of quinine.
  • The leaves and bark address constipation, lack of appetite, and urinary tract disorders.

The entire plant contains a yellow alkaloid, namely berberine. Other significant compounds present include: oxycodone, palmatine, bervulcine, berbamine, columbamine, jatrorrhizine, coptisine, and berbamine.

Uses of the plant

There are many uses for barberry, beyond the phytotherapeutic realm:

  • From the bark and roots, a valuable yellow pigment can be extracted, which was used in dyeing wool and leather.
  • The wood is highly valued by turners as it resists cracking well.
  • The barberry berries are widely used in cooking. Their taste is quite bitter, as they are rich in malic acid. They also contain vitamin C, glucose, and levulose.
  • They are not typically consumed fresh but dried.
  • The fruits are used to make syrups, jams, ice creams, drinks, jellies, and pastry dyes.
  • Like capers, they can be prepared in brine.
  • The seeds are an excellent spice.
  • The leaf buds, young and fresh, can be eaten in salads or cooked. They have a sour taste due to the presence of potassium oxalate.

Here you can find various products, from dried berries to dietary supplements.

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