Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Wild Medicinal: Barberry Root

First, I feel I have finally caught up on everything and now have time to be online again.  I'll make a post on '2012, The Year of Maple Syrup' soon.  Just saying we had an amazing maple year this year.

I did a post a couple months ago about making a blood tonic from barberry berries.  These berries in a white wine or vodka tincture can help build up red blood cells and is part of a winter tonic that my family has used for at least my life time.  I can still remember Nonna making us drink a concoction of barberry, ginger, and nasturtiums before she allowed us to go for a long day of sledding.  lol

As wonderful a medicinal as barberry berries are, the plant is actually mostly used for the berberine in its roots.  Berberine is...for lack of a better way of saying it...nature's antibiotic.  If a person has studied herbs, especially wild herbs at all, most of them will have heard of goldenseal or Oregon grape.  These wonderful herbs are used to help with infections, especially internal infections such as urinary tract infections but many people will say to use goldenseal for things such as ear infections or skin infections as well.  The part of goldenseal and Oregon grape that works against bacterial infections is the berberine.

Berberine is a bright yellow, some say golden, alkoloid that several different plants have, especially in their roots.  Healers of old discovered long before penicillin was grown in a petri dish that berberine can destroy bacteria.  Most healers that marched with ancient armies carried some sort of plant that contained berberine with them.  It was used internally in a tincture or tea to keep infection out of the blood, and be applied externally in a poultice to kill off any bacteria in the wound itself.  Tinctures of garlic and plants with berberine were kept by midwives to clean the umbilical cord if it were to be cut.  Granny women dropped mullein, garlic and berberine oil into children's ears to kill off an ear infection.  Berberine is a powerful medicine.

One great thing about using plant based antimicrobial as apposed to those that are grown in the lab is that bacteria has a hard time growing immune to those antimicrobial.  Because plants are living, growing, and changing life forms, the berberine in them is constantly changing.  While this can make it challenging to find the right dosage, it makes it almost impossible for bacteria to become resistant to it.  When the bacteria changes so does the plant and then the bacteria has to start all over.  In a lab the antibiotics and antimicrobial are made in a sterile, dead environment.  Each dose of the medicine is the exact same as the last dose and the bacteria that survives this can multiply and become resistant to the medicine.  This is one HUGE advantage to using living medicines.

Back to barberry;  barberry, along with goldenseal, oregon grape, and golden thread contains berberine.  In fact, many experts agree that barberry may have the strongest amount of the berberine in its roots of all the healing plants.  And here's the kicker, goldenseal and Oregon grape are because endangered in certain areas because of over harvesting.  Golden thread has always been a bit elusive and so even a small amount of harvesting can do damage to that healing plant.  But barberry...well in most places here in the U.S. it is considered to be an invasive, a plant that most environmentalists would like to see gone.  It can choke out native species of plants, making them endangered.  You can also buy barberry for ornamental or for hedge plants, so most people can find it quite easily.  So harvesting barberry root is actually good for you AND the environment.  Like all root crops it should be harvested after the leaves die back in the fall or before the leaves come out in the spring, basically as soon as the ground is unfrozen.

Digging up barberry is not always the easiest thing though.  First the plant has many thorns.  Second it can be a tough plant to cut.  Make sure your loppers are sharp or you'll find out the plant can fight back as you're digging it up and cutting it.  The second it gets free of the earth though you will see that bright yellow color of the root.  That is the berberine.  It is a shockingly bright color mixed up in all that dirt.  Carefully cut all the above ground branches away and take your golden treasure home.  Once there, cut the root apart to make cleaning easier and then clean is the coldest water you can stand.  Berberine is water soluble so you can wash some of it away if you clean it in warm water. 

Once you get the roots cleans you can either slice or peel the roots into long strips, dry these and store them in a dark place for up to a year.  This can be used in teas, especially for bladder, kidney or any infections of the urinary tract (UTIs).  For a longer lasting medicine you can chop the roots into lengths that fit into a jar, cover them with at least 80 proof spirits, vodka works fine, and let set for around a month or so.  Shake the jar a couple time a day and at the end of the month, strain out the roots and the remaining vodka will be your tincture.  The only time I had an ear infection I dropped about 5 drops of this tincture into my ear and I only needed two doses to clear up the infection.  Twenty to forty drops in eight ounces of water and drank three or four time a day will clear up most minor infections.  Like taking any antibiotic, make sure that you consume a good quality pro biotic like yogurt, kefer, or kumbucha, because this does not differentiate from good bacteria or bad bacteria and can destroy your internal flora as well.  Also it is best to take it for ten day to two weeks, stop for a week and then, if needed, take it for another ten days.  This way your body has a chance to heal itself and recover from this powerful medicine.

For those of us that still cling to the old traditions of healing and for those who are rediscovering them, barberry medicine is a powerful, living ally.  Use it as you would use any antimicrobial or antibiotic, sparingly and only when needed.  But knowing the golden root is there to help is a treasure worth digging for.  

This is my entree into Woodswife's Wildcrafting Wednesday #30.  Follow the link below to read all the wonderful information that everyone has to share!


  1. Hi Rea, :)

    I loved your post! Thanks for sharing it on Wildcrafting Wednesday! :)

    ~ Kathy

  2. Excellent share Rea! And you are so right, this plant is plentiful, so no guilt on harvesting:) Enjoy your day! Leslie xxx