In winter, it is everywhere. Its berries glow red in urban landscapes and country gardens. We also come across it in the suburbs, where barberry shrubs form hedges guarding properties like select soldiers. The carmine redness of its fruit makes barberry visible from afar, a feature for which hungry birds must be grateful. What should we be grateful to barberry for? In fact, for everything, as nearly every part of Berberis vulgaris is herbal raw material. So let’s have a look at all the parts, one by one.
Fructus, or the fruit
Winter is a good time for gathering barberry fruit. The berries contain organic acids (mostly malic and citric acid), pectins, sugars and vitamin C (in large quantities), as well as vitamin E, carotene, carotenoids and mineral salts. What more could we want from such little berries? Well, we could wish they were easier to pick. The barberry shrub’s densely growing, thorny branches make it hard to avoid pricking oneself. An additional impediment is the necessity of picking each little berry separately, which requires a lot of patience and carefulness. Yet our effort will be rewarded after preparing precious skin cosmetics and other beneficial products. The berries can be used to prepare virtually anything – from juices to jams to tinctures.
If we want to make a tincture, the ratio of dried berries to alcohol (40%) should be either 1:4 or 1:5. After storing it in a warm, dark place for a month, we can pour the extract to a fresh container and add sugar syrup or honey to taste.
As for cosmetics, I recommend the tonic for mature, dry, couperose skin. Pour 300 millilitres over 100 grams of berries, bring to the boil and set aside for an hour; add a pinch of baking soda to normalize the pH. Stored in the fridge, this simple tonic will last up to three weeks. If we want to prolong its life to a year, we should prepare a variant with glycerine (100 grams berries, 150 millilitres water, 150 millilitres glycerine and 20 millilitres lactic acid). If you are keen on making creams at home, remember that barberry berries contain natural UVA and UVB filters, so you should add them to your summer cosmetics.
Barberry fruit is exceptionally sour (a quality reflected in its Polish folk name, kwaśnica, from the adjective kwaśny, meaning ‘sour’). I encourage you to follow the example of Persian cuisine and dry them – they are a perfect match for rice. They can also be used in other dishes instead of cranberries.
Cortex, or the bark
The best moment to source it is when you’re cutting down your hedge. It can be done in early spring or late autumn. If you choose springtime, use young, healthy branches – cut them, remove the thorns and tendrils, cut the bark to the wood at 15 centimetre intervals, then make lengthwise incisions so that you can easily lift the bark up from the lignified part of the branch. Bring the bark decoction to the boil (proportion: one teaspoon to one glass of water) and set it aside for 15 minutes. Drink it to strengthen and cleanse the body, and to get rid of the harmful byproducts of metabolism. As you know, there is always something to be done in this matter.
Radix, or the root
As in the case of the bark, sourcing the root entails harming the plant, so it should only be done in special circumstances. We bark the root and cut it into small pieces. Just like the bark, the root can be used to prepare a decoction – it alleviates ailments of the liver and urinary tracts; it also helps treat scurvy.
Folium, or the leaf
Barberry leaves should be picked in early spring, right after they have taken shape; dry them and store them tightly sealed. An infusion from dried leaves (one teaspoon to one glass of water, brewed for 15 minutes) is a cure for digestive disorders and diseases of the biliary tract and liver.
Leaves, like the other parts of the plant, i.e. the root, bark and branches (but not the berries) are rich in isoquinoline alkaloids, e.g. berberine. The latter is a medicine for everything, or at least a lot. It has been known and used for centuries in various parts of the world – in Babylon, India and China – from Antiquity to the Middle Ages. It has been used to treat hepatitis and malaria.
Clinical studies have shown berberine to be effective against diabetes, as it not only lowers the blood sugar level but also reduces insulin resistance, as well as stopping the production of glucose in the liver and slowing carbohydrate breakdown in the intestine, which results in the increased production of insulin in the pancreas.
It has antibacterial, antiviral, antifebrile and anti-inflammatory properties, and even – a trait that is being thoroughly researched today – anticancer potential. I could go on forever about the issues it can remedy. The most noteworthy findings on barberry regard its neuroprotective properties, which improve memory and cognitive functions. Berberine supports our neurons and brain, it can also alleviate depression (at least this is what studies on mice show). It should be noted that berberine is not easily absorbed, and with long-term use it leads to sedimentation in the liver and the pancreas, as well as in other organs. When taking berberine, observe the proper dosage and consult your doctor.
Translated from the Polish by Adam Zdrodowski