Stop Bashing Barberry

Barberry is a recent target in the “fight” against invasive plants. Barberry (Berberis) is a low growing, spiny shrub with pretty red foliage in the fall accompanied by bright red berries. Landscapers and botanists love to hate this plant. I would like to offer several reasons to love Barberry.

Why So Many Barberry Haters?

Barberry comes in several species:

  • European Barberry Berberis vulgaris:  A native European shrub introduced to the US as a landscape plant, now considered invasive
  • American Barberry Berberis canadensis: Our “native” Barberry, currently on the “imperiled” list, and protected in some states
  • Japanese Barberry Berberis thunbergii: The most common and frequently encountered Barberry and the one that gets the most hate

…along with a few others. I am focusing on the three listed above because of their berberine content, which is my main reason for loving Barberry.

But that comes later. First, more about Japanese Barberry. This is the species of Barberry that has recently garnered so much attention as an invasive plant that needs eradication.  It is native to Asia and was first brought to the US in 1864 as a landscape plant. It is still widely planted as an ornamental. Its spines make it a great privacy hedge.

Barberry shrub

Japanese Barberry is now listed as an invasive in many states and is said to force out native plant species with its aggressive growth habit. The plant is spread by animals who eat the Barberry fruit and spread the seeds through excrement.

Recently, the plant was also named as a breeding ground for ticks. In a recent study, Japanese Barberry was cited as creating “a perfect, humid environment for ticks.” The report further states “When we measure the presence of carrying the Lyme spirochete (Borrelia burgdorferi) we find 120 infected ticks where Barberry is not contained, 40 ticks per acre where Barberry is contained, and only 10 infected ticks where there is no Barberry.”

An eradication campaign has begun, using propane torches to burn Japanese Barberry from “native” landscapes.

Is this enough reason to despise and eradicate Japanese Barberry from “our” part of the world?

Thoughts on “Invasives”

I am an herbalist. I love plants. I talk to plants and learn from plants. After many years of admiration, study, and use of medicinal plants I have a deep connection with plants and the Earth.

In short, I trust the Earth and the plants on her. I think that classifying a plant as “invasive” is purely a human construct. Part of our human-centric viewpoint of the planet that is not accurate or beneficial.

The most invasive species on the planet is US- humans. We have spread to every corner of the globe, and we are taking over the Earth as if it is ours. The Earth is a living entity that is not owned by any one species- it is by her grace that we are allowed to share her space and her resources.

OK, enough of that for now. Let me offer you another way of looking at Barberry, and other “invasives,”that may offer a different perspective. Ever hear of Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis)? If you are at all “crunchy” or “green” you probably have. Goldenseal is a plant that is native to North America and has been used by native people of this continent for hundreds of years as a potent antibiotic, anti-inflammatory, and anti-cancer herb.


Goldenseal has been overharvested and is on the endangered species list in the U.S. and Canada. In my apothecary, Goldenseal was my go-to plant for any sort of bacterial infection, and my clients and I find it highly effective. I used Goldenseal for:

  • Upper respiratory infection (sinus infection)
  • Bacterial infection of the lower respiratory system
  • Infection of the throat (tonsillitis)
  • UTI
  • Topically to prevent infection of wounds

I still keep Goldenseal in the La Loba Community Apothecary for times when other herbs don’t work, or as a small part of a formula. But Goldenseal has become extremely expensive, and because it is endangered, herbalists like me are looking for alternatives.

This brings us right back to Barberry. Plants in the Berberis genus contain berberine and hydrastine- the same effective chemicals in Goldenseal. With Goldenseal all but gone, we need another option for berberine-containing plants… see where I am going with this?

Japanese Barberry is very hardy. It is hard to kill, and if we stop torching it, hard to eradicate. What if Barberry is abundant JUST BECAUSE there is no longer Goldenseal to fight bacteria? We need plant antimicrobials, especially considering how antibiotic resistant some bacteria have become.

A little further on in this blog, I will also show you how berberine is being studied as an anti-obesity chemical. Obesity is nearly epidemic in the U.S.- another reason for the indestructible Japanese Barberry to make its way to our continent?

Is Barberry “invasive” and needing to be eradicated? Or is it here due to a deeper wisdom that transcends our human-centric views of the planet? Something to ponder. I do.

processing Barberry root
Processing Barberry root

Barberry As Medicine

Two species of Barberry (B. vulgaris & B. thunbergii)  have been studied as a possible substitute for Goldenseal. The Journal of Pharmaceutical Biology did a 2008 study that compared the plant alkaloids of Goldenseal, Japanese Barberry, and European Barberry.

Overall, while Goldenseal had more than twice the alkaloids of any Barberry species, Japanese Barberry had more of these antibiotic plant extracts than European Barberry.

“In conclusion, these results suggest that Berberis thunbergii
is a potential substitute for goldenseal with respect to
its berberine content and in-vitro antibacterial activity”

Since the primary concentration of berberine is found in the roots of the plant, using Japanese Barberry root for medicine would, in effect, control it’s growth and spread.

Berberine Potential Uses

So why care about Goldenseal, Barberry or berberine anyway? Berberine has now been studied in hundreds of clinical trials, and the potential uses are highly impressive.

In December 2012, the Natural Medicine Journal published an abstract called “Clinical Applications for Berberine,” which includes links to dozens of studies on berberine’s therapeutic uses. Here are a few potential uses of berberine:

  • Metabolic syndrome
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Antimicrobial against bacteria, fungi, protozoa, viruses
  • Reduces inflammation
  • Increses bile secretion (improving digestion)
  • Wide range of GI infections
a bowl of barberry root
a Bowl of Barberry root

Berberine and Metabolic Syndrome

Metabolic syndrome is a very common complaint in our overweight and obese culture. Metabolic syndrome includes:

  • Insulin resistance: the body produces insulin that is not properly burned as fuel by the body; but is often stored as fat
  • High blood pressure
  • Elevated cholesterol levels
  • Abdominal obesity (belly fat)

Sound familiar? It should. Metabolic syndrome affects up to 30% of our population; primarily those who are obese. Metabolic syndrome results in heart disease, diabetes, fatty liver, PCOS and more.

Metabolic syndrome is thought to be caused primarily by:

  • Smoking
  • Eating a high carbohydrate diet
  • Sedentary lifestyle

Here is where berberine (and Japanese Barberry) might come to the rescue. Studies have shown that berberine is one of the few alkaloids that activates AMPK, an enzyme that determines how energy is used in our bodies. Metabolic syndrome happens when AMPK enzyme production gets switched off. It turns out that high glucose levels (eating a high carb diet) initially inhibits AMPK enzyme production.

Research is suggesting that switching back on our AMPK enzymes might produce the same benefits as dieting and exercise. And-you guessed it- berberine is one of the few chemicals that activate AMPK. Berberine decreases insulin resistance and thereby stimulates weight loss. Go figure.

Berberine and Cancer

Maintaining a healthy weight and getting exercise each day is a way to avoid getting cancer. Berberine also inhibits the growth and spread of cancer cells. There are dozens of studies taking a closer look at the potential of berberine as a cancer prevention and treatment.

Barberry fruit

Reasons to Love Barberry

Sometimes I am confounded by the human need to exert control over everything, and I include myself here. Instead of rushing to negative conclusions about the invasive nature of any plant, perhaps we could instead ask “why?”

If we live with the concept that there are no accidents, then things start to make a little more sense. When we trust that our great Earth is alive and aware, our perspective can shift. When our perspective shifts from dominating to belonging, we feel the urge to protect our sweet home planet. What a wonderful domino effect.

We practically eradicated wild Goldenseal with its amazing berberine content. Nature brought us some berberine that is harder to kill- Japanese Barberry. This seems similar to taking away a glass from a toddler and replacing it with an unbreakable sippy-cup.

In my Plant Wisdom series, Herbalism for Home and Homestead, I teach people a new way of seeing the Plant Nation. Weeds become medicine. Invasives become gifts from our tolerant Earth mother. Our urge to resist softens, and we become part of our ecosystem again.

Next time you come across a Japanese Barberry, perhaps you can resist the urge to hate it, to kill it. Instead, dig up a root and scratch off the top, thin layer of bark. You will find gold just under the surface of the roots. Come join me for some classes, and see how to learn to love Barberry.


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