Root Medicine – Barberry

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Barberry (berberis vulgaris) roots.

Why hello.

I haven’t posted in a long time. Things have been busy. It was an election year. The holidays. Etc.

But now I’m back and (mostly) recovered, so let’s talk about BARBERRY! Specifically, the Japanese Barberry which is taking over our lands here in north America, and especially on the east coast. Like garlic mustard, it’s kind of a bully plant; it pushes natives out and generally creates a hostile work environment for them with it’s imposing personality, prickly branches, and tendency to add cinnamon to the office coffee pot even though certain people have complained about this many times.

A barberry bush in fall.
A barberry bush in fall.
A barberry berry. Lots of vitamin C, but I think the taste is kind of meh.
A barberry berry. Lots of vitamin C, but I think the taste is kind of meh. I do like the leaves though, they have a nice citrusy flavor. One time I was in the woods for like 8 hours, barefoot, with no water and super thirsty, so I ate some barberry leaves and they really made me feel way better. Sometimes my life is weird.

Like many oft-maligned invasives, barberry has something valuable to offer when we look more deeply at it.

If you peel back the outer layer of it’s bark, you’ll see the bright yellow-gold insides of barberry. The vivid color comes from an alkaloid called berberine. 

If berberine were captured in a Martha Stewart paint color I bet it would be called Sun Gold. Oooh I would buy that!
If berberine were captured in a Martha Stewart paint color I bet it would be called Sun Gold. Oooh I would buy that!

So what’s the deal with berberine? (Aside from being an excellent dye. Seriously my hands were yellow for days.)

Well my darlings, I’ll tell you. It may provide an answer to the growing problem of antibiotic resistant infections, such as MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus). Without getting too technical, berberine may be able to force MRSA to respond to antibiotics. So, it’s very possible it could be used in concurrence with antibiotics on infections that just aren’t responding to treatment. To which I say OH THANK GOD!

Berberine is also found in oregon grape root, goldenseal and goldenthread. These plants are often referred to as “natural antibiotics”. To a certain extent this is true, but it’s a little bit of an oversimplification. While they do have significant antimicrobial properties and are used to treat infection, thinking of them as just straight antibiotics might mean you miss the bigger picture of what these plants can do.

So let’s talk a bit more about barberry as a whole plant. The root, the part used most often to make medicine, is cooling, drying, astringent and bitter. According to Matthew Wood, people with damp, warm, stagnant conditions may respond best to barberry.

Overall I would say that it is clearing and purifying. It gets the juices flowing, if you will. It increases bile production, clears the liver, cleanses the blood, and aids in digestion. I’ve also read that it can be effective in clearing up minor infections in the bladder, kidneys, and urinary tract. In my own personal experience, the tincture helped me with a troublesome, intense stomach ache. It also made me really hungry. I think it really kickstarted my digestion after literally weeks of stuffing my face with sugary, carby, super fatty Christmas foods.

Thankfully, I haven’t had the chance to test it on any infections.

Ok, so how do we make medicine with this plant?

You could do a bark decoction and drink it, and that’d work great, I’m sure. But barberry is seriously bitter, so I decided to go straight to a tincture (which is still really bitter, but you don’t have to take as much at once. You can take it straight if you’re a badass like me, or you can be lame and mask the taste with a nice fruit juice if you want).

I have a few barberry plants in my yard, including a big family of them down near the end of my driveway. The best time to harvest barberry (or any root) is late in the fall, when the plant goes to sleep for the winter and all it’s energy and medicine return to the roots. So I waited. And Stalked. And waited. And then when they were asleep…I asked them nicely if I could use some of their roots to make medicine.

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Just cut…

I dug a big piece of root and part of a lower branch, took them to the house and rinsed the dirt off of them. Note: use super cold water for this – berberine is water soluble and warm water will leech away some of the medicine faster.

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And after a nice washing!

Next, I carefully shaved the roots into little slices and filled a mason jar with them. I covered them with a mixture of 50% 80 proof vodka and 50% Everclear to really make sure I got everything I could out of the bark.

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Success! Already turning a nice golden color.
Success! Already turning a nice golden color.

After six weeks, strain, bottle and label.

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I think you only need a few drops at a time (I take small doses of about 5 drops), but up to 30 should be fine. Of course, this really depends on the condition being addressed, as well as your constitution, tolerance, etc.

Barberry is a really wonderful and incredibly valuable plant. And the best part is, unlike oregon grape, goldenthread, and especially goldenseal, barberry is readily available and in no danger of dying out from high-demand and irresponsible harvesting. So we should use it instead whenever we can!

In conclusion, that prickly asshole of a bush that snags your pants and rips your jacket when you’re walking through the woods or trying to clean up your yard is actually a pretty nice gift from nature and an great plant ally to have.

Note: I’m not a doctor! I’m really just sharing what I know, and I’m still learning. Definitely ask a doctor and do your own research if you have concerns about trying out any herbal remedies!

References and further reading:

The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants by Matthew Wood

The Way of Herbs by Michael Tierra

Oregon Grape Herb by Rosalee de la Foret

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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