(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on May 18, 2010. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questionsor comments.)
I have to tell you right up front that I have not seen the common barberry growing in my area. I think I would know it if I saw it, and I certainly would be able to spot its yellow cluster of blooms in May. I know I would find it if I could see its colors of fall, so what is my problem? It has been a long time since I roamed the mountains of southeast Kentucky, and even there common barberries weren't in abundance. I think they might not grow in abundance here in western Kentucky either.
I remembered them when I started thinking during the winter about changing my outdoor arrangement into something more appropriate for the holidays. From somewhere in the depths of my memories, came the image of dark red leaves and brilliant red berries that I always used in pots on our front porch. They came along right after the branches of witch hazel that I was never allowed to bring into the house anymore lest their seed pods pop in the warmth of our home, throwing tiny black seeds all over my mother's pristine house (again!).
I found the bushes, to me they were tall trees, back in the days when I roamed those mountains with Aunt Bett in search of "berbery" bark that she made into a medicinal tea. I can't remember much more about it except that I gathered branches for decorating, and I always swiped some roots so I could make a nice yellow dye. When I run across a vivid memory like this, I have to dig in my family papers where much of my childhood information is stored. I rummage around for a while in an upheaval of old pictures, school papers, report cards and a lot of dust, until I find papers that contain the lists of Aunt Bett's home remedies. Sometimes they are hard to decipher, especially since I haven't lived in the mountains in some 40 years or so, but just like Aunt Bett, I always make do with what I find. This time I found the nibble of a treasure, and with the help of a couple of search engines, I have a story about a beautiful plant that I am going to have to have in my garden.
Berberis vulgaris is the name of the rare small tree that I remember. Aunt Bett called it berberry, and when I was nine or ten, I didn't know any better. Most people call it common barberry, but no matter what the name, it is an interesting plant. The yellow wood of common barberry most likely was a sign to physicians long ago that the plant was useful for jaundice, a condition in which the skin turns yellowish. Medicine men and the very earliest physicians usually considered the shape or the color of a plant before deciding what part of the body or which disease it could be used to help. They considered the plants color or appearance to be a divine sign of the type of injury or illness it would cure.
I can't tell you much about divine signs. Lightning would have to strike here in the middle of this moonlit night, and then I might not recognize it as a divine sign. But I can tell you a little bit about this lovely bush. The common barberry was introduced from Europe, and now grows wild in many areas of North America. In some areas it may be considered invasive, but that seems not to be the problem in my area. Most often it can be seen as an ornamental shrub. It is a bushy deciduous upright shrub, and it can grow to an approximate height of 10 feet. The stems are woody, upright and branched, smooth, grooved and brittle. The bark is ash colored. They grow in thickets, pastures and waste places, and the two that I remember clung to the bank above the small creek that ran behind our house in the mountains.
The flowers are small, pale yellow, hanging in a cluster at the end of branches. I remember their scent is unpleasant when close, but not so offensive from a distance. Various insects, including honey bees, are very fond of the barberry flower. The berries are about a half inch long, when ripe they are a fine red color. They hang like grapes from the branches.
The barberry used to be cultivated for the sake of the fruit, which was pickled and used for garnishing dishes. The ripe berries can be made into a jelly by boiling them with an equal weight of fine sugar to a proper consistency, and then straining. They were also used as a sweetmeat, and in sugar plums. The roots boiled in lye will dye wool yellow, and in some countries leather is dyed a beautiful yellow color with the bark of the root. The inner bark of the stems will also dye linen a fine yellow when used in combination with alum. Among Italians, the barberry bears the name of the Holy Thorn, because it is thought to have formed part of the crown of thorns representing Christianity.
The plant is best propagated by layers, and the best time for laying down the branches is in autumn. The young shoots of the same year are best, and they will be well rooted by the next autumn, when they may be taken off and planted where they are designed to remain. When Aunt Bett and I gathered it, she would shave the bark, then spread out the shaved pieces on screens in the sun, but if the weather was not appropriate she often placed the bark in her warm attic before the weather turned cold. I also remember that she would often string that bark like shucky beans and hang to dry.
The chief constituent of barberry bark is berberine, a yellow crystalline, bitter alkaloid, one of the few that occurs in plants belonging to several different natural orders. Other constitutuents are oxyacanthine, berbamine, a little tannin, wax, resin, albumin, gum and starch. Aunt Bett made a decoction and from that she made it into a mild tea. She thought it proved an excellent remedy for dyspepsia and liver problems, and she always said it relieved constipation. I remember asking her about livers, because all I can remember about livers is picking pieces of chicken liver out of holiday dressing. I figured there was no way I could eat anything that was as slimy as raw liver appeared to be. I wondered how she would ever know if somebody's liver hurt. To my knowledge, I didn't have one because it certainly had never given me any pain. I knew I had lungs, because I could feel them expand whenever I breathed, and hearts I could feel and hear, but I sure didn't think I had a liver. She assured me that I would be turning yellow if I had a liver problem, so I checked every morning to make sure I didn't see any yellow streaks anywhere. Sometimes I questioned the dye I found in various places on my body, but usually I knew what had caused it. I don't remember ever turning yellow, so I didn't drink any of her barberry tonic.
Some folks say that a preparation of barberry lotion, also made from a decoction will heal skin eruptions, and that the decoction makes a good gargle when added liberally to some warm water. It eases the painfully raw sore throat. Even now Egyptians employ a diluted juice of the berries in pestilential fevers. Aunt Bett sweetened it with honey when she used it as a gargle or a tea.
Today, researchers tell us that the preparations from the plant may improve liver function by stimulating the production of bile by the liver. Scientists have found however, that barberry is more likely effective as an antiseptic. Berberine salts, derived from the commmon barberry and other plants, are used in eyedrops and eyewashes.
I haven't turned yellow yet, and I have no trouble with my eyesight that I know of, my throat is not sore at the moment, but I do want to find some barberry branches for my outdoor pots this holiday season. I think the birds would enjoy it, too. I can just see them now, huge clusters of bright scarlet berries like so many little old ladies gathered round the lunch table chatting away, and being distracted by the birds nibbling on their bright red hats.
My problem is, I want all the plants, bushes and trees of my childhood. I have been thinking that if I got rid of the house, I could pitch a tent and make room for all of them. You see, there aren't a lot of plants that I didn't nap under at one time or another. I think I could do it again.
Photos are from Plant Files. Thanks to the expert photography of Mehdi, Todd_Boland, and Kennedyh.
Sources for verification: http://www.infoplease.com/ce6/sci/A0806148.html