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Herbal Monograph

Herb: BARBERRY ROOT  (Berberis spp.; Berberis vulgaris; Berberidaceae)                                                                                     

Other Names:  saurberry, sowberry  (50)    Easy to confuse with fruits of other berberis types.  Also called berberry, pipperidge, jaundice berry, sow berry, mountain grape, Oregon grape.    (2)    Joniris R.D. Note — [cf. Oregon Grape Monograph.]

Berbery, berberidis, pipperidge-bush, Gouan.    (57)

Character/Energetics:   cold, bitter (6) cooling, bitter (15)                                          

Meridians/Organs/Body Parts affected: liver, stomach, colon (6); liver, spleen, digestive tract, blood   (14)

Parts used: root (6); root bark  (14); bark or root bark  (50)                               

Identification & Harvesting:  A deciduous, heavily branched, thorny bush up to 6′ high.  The thorny branches are angular, deeply grooved, initially brownish yellow, later more white-grey.  Thorns are 1-2 cm long and stick out horizontally.  Leaves are in bushels and are obovate to elliptoid, 1″-2″ long and narrowed into the 1/2″ stem.  They are dark green and reticulate, and the margin is dentate.  Flowers have a repulsive smell;  fruit flesh is juicy and sour.  Flowers are 2″-3″ long in yellow, dense, hanging clusters.  Six petals have orange honey glands at the base.  The edible fruit is a bright scarlet, oblong-cylindrical berry, 10-12 mm long and 6mm thick.  Usually two seeds.  Grows in Europe, north Africa, parts of America and central Asia.  (2)

Stem bark is thin, yellowish grey on the surface, orange yellow inside, separates into layers.  Root bark is dark brown.  Tastes very bitter.   (57)

Active constituents:    Fruit — trace isoquinoline alkaloids;  anthocyans;  chlorogenic acid;  malic acid, acetic acid;  Vitamin C.  Root — isoquinoline alkaloids, partic’ly berberine, berbamine, oxyacanthin, also columbamine, palmatine, jatrorrhizine, magnoflorine  (2); berberine alkaloid, chelidonic acid, resin, tannin, wax   (6)       

Actions:    Fruit — Vitamin C increases immune system activity, stimulates iron absorption, and prevents scurvy (hence the name “ascorbic” acid).  Root — antibiotic, stimulates intestinal peristalsis;  possibly hypotensive, cholagogue  (2); alterive, hepatic, laxative (6) antiseptic,  hepatic, stomachic, alterive, aromatic, tonic  (14)      

cooling, antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, bitter (15); bitter tonic, cholagogue, hepatic, laxative, antibilious, anti-emetic   (22); tonic, laxative, hepatic   (50)

Tonic, pugative, antiseptic.  Regulates digestive powers, being a mild purgative, and removes constipation  (57)

Conditions and Uses:  Fruit — Take a decoction or tincture for lung, spleen and liver diseases.  Jam or wine from fresh berries can relieve constipation or lack of appetite.  Tincture for heartburn or stomach cramps, feverish colds, diseases of the urinary tract.  Root — used for opium or morphine withdrawal.  Folk uses include liver malfunctions, gallbladder disease, jaundice, splenopathy, indigestion, diarrhea, scrofulosis, tuberculosis, piles, renal disease, urinary tract disorders, gout, rheumatism, arthritis, lumbago, malaria, leishmaniasis.  Efficacy for these indications has not been proven  (2)

Acts on the liver, promoting the secretion of bile. It has been used for the following: bad breath, digestion, kidneys, liver, rheumatism, skinand sore throat.   (1) 

This is one of the mildest and best liver tonics known, good for jaundice, hepatitis and diabetes. Since it is milder than some of the other herbs in this category, it is safer to use and can help clear deficient heat. A combination of barberry and tumeric is used in Ayurvedic medicine to regulate liver energy in a way that is very similar to the use of bupleurum in Chinese herbalism. Barberry is useful as a bitter tonic to stimulate digestion, as a mild laxative, and in the treatment of inflammatory arthritic and rheumatic complaints. (6)      

Internal – anemia: tincture, fluid extract

blood purifier:  tincture*, fluid extract*, decoction*

boils:  tincture*, fluid extract*, decoction*

constipation:  tincture*, fluid extract*, decoction*

diarrhea:  decoction*

digestion:  tincture*, fluid extract*, decoction*, powder*

gall stones: decoction

heartburn:  tincture*, fluid extract*, decoction*,  powder*

jaundice:  fluid extract*, decoction*, syrup* swollen & obstructed spleen:  tincture, fluid extract                   

* Indicates that barberry is usually used in combination with other herbs when treating the indicated problem.    (14)

      For inflamed gallbladder:  stimulates bile flow and eases liver congestion; bitter and laxative/Add 15 g herb to 600 ml water for a decoction; or take up to 8 ml tincture a day/Combine with anti-inflammatories such as goldenseal (5 drops tincture per dose) and liver tonics live vervain or blobe artichoke.   (15)

(Barberry is) believed to be an excellent remedy for correcting liver function and promoting the flow of bile. Indicated for inflammation of the gall bladder, gall stones and jaundice. (when due to a congested state of the liver). As a bitter tonic with mild laxative effects, it is believed to strengthen and cleanse the system. Also said to be effective in reducing an enlarged spleen. This herb is included in the Hoxsey (anti-cancer) formula.  (22)

Indicated in the relief of jaundice, chronic diarrhea and dysentery, also found serviceable as a wash or gargle for sore mouth and throat.  (50) 

Used in all cases of jaundice, liver complaints, general debility, biliousness.  The berries make a pleasant acid drink of great utility in diarrhea, fevers, etc.    (57)

Combinations:   A combination of barberry with cayenne, goldenseal and lobelia is a specific for jaundice and hepatitis:  1 tablespoon of barberry

1 tablespoon of goldenseal root powder

1/2 teaspoon of lobelia

1/4  teaspoon of cayenne

Make a decoction using 1 pint of distilled water. Take two tablespoons three to five times daily.   (14)

For inflamed gallbladder: Combine with anti-inflammatories such as goldenseal (5 drops tincture per dose) and liver tonics live vervain or blobe artichoke.   (15)

Precautions:  No known hazards or side effects with designated dosages, but doses of over 4 mg dried root will cause light stupor, nose bleeds, vomiting, diarrhea and kidney irritation.    (2)

Avoid in pregnancy  (15)

Do not use if nursing or pregnant.   (22)

Tincturing Process:   Vita Mix:   Fill barberry root to nipple level in container. 

          Process: 60 seconds forward; 30 seconds reverse.  (1a)

          Solvent percentage of absolute alcohol–50-70% (10)

Applications:    To extract pure alkaloids from berberis roots, use .3% sulfuric acid mixed with 10% NaCl (salt).  The precipitated berberine hydrochloride is washed with mildly hydrochloric water and dried.  It is then dissolved in water (pH 8) and filtered.  The filtrate is heated to 70 C and set to pH 2.0 using hydrochloric acid.  The precipitate of pure berberine hydrochloride is then washed and dried.    (2)

Because barberry tea is so bitter, it should be taken in small doses. The natural physician uses it chiefly for all sluggish liver conditions. An infusion is also valuable for swollen spleen and chronic stomach problems when taken in tablespoonfuls several times a day, especially before meals.  (14)


Dosage: tincture:  10-30 drops; standard decoction or 3-9 gms.  (6)   

  infusion:  1/2 oz. to 1 pint water. Steep 10 minutes. 1 to 4 cups daily before meals.

  decoction (root bark):  Simmer 10 minutes. 1 tbsp. as needed

  tincture: 1/2 to 1 tsp. as needed

  fluid extract: 1/2 to 1 tsp. as needed

  powder:  2 to 5 #0 capsules (15 to 30 grains) 3x daily   (14) 

  10 to 30 drops 2 to 3 times daily. Do not use if nursing or pregnant.  (22)

1/4 tsp powdered bark 3-4 x daily.  1/2-1 drachm liquid extract.    (57)

General Notes:         



(1) Cayuga Botanicals Research Data, “Barberry Root” file

(1a) ibid Research Data, “Barberry Root tincture” file

(2)  PDR for Herbal Medicines (Medical Economics Co., 1998), pgs. 688-89

(6) Planetary Herbology by Michael Tierra, C.A., N.D. 

(10) Herbal Preparations and Natural Therapies by Debra Nuzzi St. Claire, M.H., pg.127

(14) Natural Healing With Herbs by Humbart Santillo BS, MH, pgs. 83-84

(15) The Complete Medicinal Herbal by Penelope Ody, pgs. 154-155, 180

(22) Herbs and Herbal Formulas (booklet) by Mark Hershiser, pg. 4

(50) The Practical Herbalist and Astrologer by Ira N. Shaw, pg. 27

(57) Potter’s Cyclopaedia by R.C. Wren, F.L.S., pgs. 26-27