Barberry is a tree native to North America. It grows up to 25 feet tall and its leaves are green with white stripes. Its fruit are small, round, red berries which ripen from September through November. They have a bitter taste and contain vitamin C, potassium, iron and other minerals.
The name “barberry” comes from the fact that it resembles a berry (bar) on top of a woody stem (brig). The tree is often called the American chestnut because it was originally found growing in the forests of New England. However, today there are many varieties of barberry trees.
Some are deciduous while others grow only in evergreen or mixed hardwood forest types. There are also some species that prefer acidic soils such as limestone and dolomite rock, but most species thrive under a wide range of soil conditions.
Barberry trees are usually found along streams and rivers. They are not very common in dry areas where they would need shade, so they may be less abundant than their cousins the ash trees. Most species of barberry require little water, though some require regular watering to prevent leaf drop.
The seeds do not germinate until spring after which time they will begin to sprout within a few weeks. The trees can grow quickly under the right conditions.
The barberry is one of several edible, berry-bearing shrubs that are often found in North American forests. It is not uncommon to find colonies of blueberries, blackberries, dewberries or even strawberries growing alongside these types of trees. The leaves of the plant are smaller than those of an oak tree but larger than those of a thorny blackberry bush, and have a serrated edge.
The bark is a light brown color and often has a few grey patches on larger trees. The small, red fruits look very much like a miniature cranberry or redcurrant and grow in small clumps called “cranesbills” on the branches of the shrub.
Some Native American tribes such as the Cherokee and Choctaw would eat these berries fresh, similar to how we eat other berries. In times of famine, the bark of the tree was used as a substitute for bread. It can also be dried and ground into a powder which can then be baked into biscuits, cakes or other foods.
The shoots can also be eaten and were a common addition to salads by some tribes such as the Ojibwe.
The berries are rich in antioxidants, which can help reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer. They contain vitamins A, C and E. They also contain ursolic acid which has anti-cancer properties.
The berries are also high in fiber.
The leaves, bark and seeds can be made into a tea. In the past, the tea was used to treat colds, coughs and diarrhea. Today it can still be used to reduce fevers, treat the common cold, alleviate stomach pain and heal wounds.
It can be used as an eyewash to sooth sore eyes.
The Ojibwe, Algonquin and other tribes would mix the dried berries with other materials and fuse them together using deer tallow to create a kind of early snuff. These snuffs were then either sniffed up the nose or smoked.
One of the most interesting things about barberry is that it contains berberine. This chemical is effective in treating infections caused by Gram-positive bacteria such as strep throat, pneumonia and urinary tract infections.
The fruit can be used to make a soft leather-like cloth called barberry leather. This material can then be sewn into warm clothing such as vests or long johns. It was a popular choice for Native Americans and early settlers because it was easy to make, relatively cheap and very warm.
The berries can be baked into a kind of barberry bread or made into jam. They can also be mixed with cow’s milk or water and then baked into muffins.
Barberry leaves can be used as an alternative to tobacco, either by smoking in a pipe or simply by chewing
The bark of the tree can be shredded and then woven into sturdy ropes which have many uses such as making a hammock or tying up a prisoner.
The dried out roots can be ground down and then used as an effective substitute for flour when baking. It has a taste similar to coconut.
The wood can be carved into objects such as bowls or ladles and then dried out. The wood is harder than most others and therefore the utensils are more durable.
As barberry grows in densely populated areas, it can be found in many urban and suburban regions.
The berries are ripe and ready for collecting in the autumn. They can be frozen and saved for later, or turned into one of the many useful products. When making barberry products such as jam, it is important to cook them for a long time, to kill any bacteria that could spoil the food.
This makes the food safer to eat.
It’s possible to try and grow your own barberry bush. The berries grow on stems and each stem can produce up to 10 berries. In order to grow more, you can simply plant the stems.
They will readily take. The berries can then be picked and prepared like normal.
When collecting the barberries, always remember to only pick from areas that you know are not sprayed with pesticides or other harmful chemicals, or you could end up poisoning yourself when eating them!
A barberry shrub can grow to be 3 to 5 feet tall. They have dark green leaves which turn yellow in the autumn before falling off. The bark on the trees is a pale grey in colour and peels off in strips.
Native Americans used the barberry for many different things, mainly due to its large range of nutrients. The people of the north west coastal plains used to brew a tea from the leaves to relieve stomach problems. The Potawatomi drank a tea made from the roots to relieve pain during childbirth.
The Meskwaki boiled the fruit to create a sweet drink. The Ojibwe ate the berries raw or mixed them with other fruits, or else dried them and stored them for later use. They also cooked them down into a jam.
The Lakota used the fruit to make a dye, whilst the leaves could be used for chewing to relieve toothache.
The Meskwaki and Ojibwe also used the fruit to make bows for their arrows. The wood is very tough, which makes it perfect for this use. Native Americans would plant a young barberry tree at the birth of a child, so that the tree could grow with them, and then use the wood for making the child’s first bow.
The wood was not only used for archery. The Lakota people made flutes out of the thin but strong wood.
The Zuni people took advantage of the barberry’s ability to grow in harsh conditions and on poor soil. They would plant it around their homes, as it acted as a natural barrier, keeping away wild animals.
Barberries now have another use. In some countries they are used for hedges, as they have a very dense growth and act as a good barrier. Barberry can also be used to make red dye, if you boil the roots, leaves and stems.
Some people are allergic to the berries, for example if you get hives, difficulty breathing, a swollen face and nausea within a short period of time after eating them, then it is a strong indication of such a condition. In that case it is best to avoid them altogether!
If you have too many barberries, then you can always dry them out and roast them like coffee beans.
If you drink too much tea made from barberries, it can cause your urine to turn a reddish-orange colour.
Sources & references used in this article:
The Amazing Benefits of Berberine by HB Works – stevenhorne.com
High-pressure CO2 extraction of bioactive compounds of barberry fruit (Berberis vulgaris): process optimization and compounds characterization by A Sharifi, M Niakousari, SA Mortazavi… – Journal of Food …, 2019 – Springer
The barberry or bread”: the public campaign to eradicate common barberry in the United States in the early 20th century by PD Peterson – APS Features. doi, 2013 – apsnet.org
Who Wrote’The Barberry-Tree’? by J Beer – The Review of English Studies, 1986 – JSTOR
Influence of apple cider vinegar on blood lipids by Z Beheshti, YH Chan, HS Nia, F Hajihosseini, R Nazari… – Life Sci J, 2012 – academia.edu
Traditional values of medicinal plants, herbs and their curable benefits by P Yadav, T Pandiaraj, V Yadav, V Yadav… – Journal of …, 2020 – phytojournal.com
Berberine for Your Heart by R Padiachy – ramilas.com
Nutritional value and antioxidant activity of minor fruits grown in Piemonte (Italy) by G Bounous, GL Beccaro, MG Mellano… – I International Symposium …, 2006 – actahort.org