Discovering Herbs: Berberis
by Alison Cullen
If your garden contains Berberis, you will be aware that it is not a shrub to tackle lightly. It has thorns! These are disguised to some extent by the pretty yellow flowers that ripen into red berries in the autumn. Berberis likes the sun but nevertheless it manages to survive widely in the British Isles. A perennial shrub, it has a distinctive yellow bark to its branching root and therein lies the key to the actions of Berberis.
The bark’s yellow tinge is due to the presence of an alkaloid, berberine, which is a valued constituent of many plants used in herbal medicine. A yellow dye can be obtained from the bark and stem of these plants. Berberine is antibacterial, antiparasitic, reduces diarrhoea, combats food poisoning, increases the blood supply to the spleen, increases pancreatic secretions, works on catarrh and helps the gall-bladder! With so many positive actions, it is no wonder that it is sought after. The best known of the berberine-containing group is Goldenseal. There are conservation issues here though, as Goldenseal is currently listed as the fifth most endangered species on the planet. Alternative sources of berberine are needed and Berberis is an ideal choice.
Whatever you do, don’t go dosing yourself with bits of Berberis from the garden: it is highly poisonous! A carefully prepared tincture is made from the berries, and used primarily for gall-bladder problems and as an antibacterial. It is thought to potentiate the action of Echinacea when the two herbs are taken together. Many people who suffer digestive discomfort find later in life that they have been quietly forming gall-stones. It is one of the repercussions of the high-fat, low fibre diet that tends to predominate in the West. Berberis helps with the formation and movement of bile, getting it out of the gall-bladder and into the digestive tract where it can tackle the fats in our diet. The beneficial effects of Berberis can be felt all along the digestive tract, and never more so than when you have had a bout of sickness and diarrhoea or a tussle with an undesirable parasite. Those suffering from Crohn’s Disease may well benefit from the antibacterial effect of Berberis, alongside the positive action on the digestive tract. Diarrhoea is a common feature with Crohn’s Disease, and this can often be tackled effectively with Berberis.
So the next time you are moved to vociferate unflattering expletives when coming into contact with Berberis, remember that its bark is much more useful than its bite!