What is Barberry?

The barberry is believed to have originated in Europe, North Africa and temperate Asia. The bark and roots have been used medicinally, and the close-grained wood is made into toothpicks. A yellow dye made from the bark was a coloring for wool, linen and leather.

The name holy thorn derives from the Italian’s belief that it was used in the crown of thorns placed on Christ at his crucifixion. Unfortunately for the barberry shrub, it is host to a strain of rust which affects wheat.

As its popularity as a spice led to wider cultivation, its subsequent association with the spread of disease in wheat made it extremely unpopular with farmers. The famines in the early tenth century in Spain were largely a result of the damage done to the wheat crops by rust. This may go some way to explain why barberry is so rarely heard of these days. The most likely way for us to become aware of it has been as an ingredient in Afghan cooking, where it is used to flavor rice dishes.


Barberries are the dried, bright red berries from a species of berberis, many of which are poisonous. The ripe berries of B. vulgaris are used in cooking for their pleasantly acidic taste and fruity aroma, not unlike tamarind. The barberry bush is deciduous, grows to about 8 ft. (2.5 m) tall, and bears small, brightyellow flowers borne in clusters followed by the purple-scarlet fruit that becomes red upon ripening. Dried, ripe barberries are around 1/2 in. (10 mm) long, oblong in shape, moist to touch and look a bit like a miniature currant. The red color darkens with age as they oxidize.

Purchasing and Storage

Barberries can be found in middle eastern or international markets. Currants or dried cranberries could probably be substituted if you can’t find them – but they’re worth finding, as they lend a distinct tartness that goes well with the other flavors. Due to the toxicity of some species, the purchase of fresh barberries, which may be from an uncertain source, is not recommended. Only buy dried barberry from a reputable merchant. The dried barberry is quite moist to touch, typical of dried fruits, and should be red to dark red in color. Store in an airtight pack in the freezer to retain maximum color and flavor.

Cooking with Barberry

Traditionally barberry is used for its high citric acid content and was considered a good accompaniment to mutton when made into a jelly similar to the red currant jelly which so often accompanies game. It has been pickled for serving with curries and the Afghans and Iranians put barberry in their rice dishes. We like to use barberries with fruit, especially apples, where they make a particularly attractive addition to an apple pie, with the extra benefit of delivering the occasional fruity burst of tangy flavor.

Health Benefits of Barberry

Barberry is used as a general health tonic to promote vigor and a sense of health and wellbeing. The active substance found in barberry is called barberine alkaloids which has been proven to combat infection and bacteria, and stimulate the immune system. It is used to fight cold and fever. Barberry is also applied to ease inflammation. The herb fights infection in the urinary, gastrointestinal and respiratory tracts. Indications of mucosal discharge including sinusitis, rhinitis (commonly known as nasal congestion), bronchitis and even tuberculosis can be reduced using barberry extracts.

Since the plant is also found to effectively combat fungal growth and infection, it is used in skin infections and for candid infections in the vagina. Certain skin infections like psoriasis also may be treated using barberry though there is a need for further research in this area. Because of its strong anti-fungal and anti-inflammatory properties, Barberry also makes good eyewash. People suffering from conjunctivitis or inflamed eyelids can benefit from the application of a compress containing Barberry.

The roots and rhizomes of the plant are used because they have very high barberine content. In some cases, the leaves, berries and bark are also used. The bark and root bark of Barberry is antiseptic and an astringent. They are also hepatic, purgative, laxative, tonic and stomachic. The flowers and the bark are antirheumatic. Today all parts of the plant are used to form a general health tonic that improves the flow of bile and alleviates conditions like gallbladder pain, jaundice and gallstones. Barberry tincture is also recommended as an effective treatment for liver problems including hepatitis and jaundice. Barberry has also been found to be effective against diarrhea.

Barberry Caution: Studies show that it may irritate the stomach and may not suit people with stomach ulcers. Although barberry helps patients suffering from diarrhea, it is less useful when it comes to clearing the microorganisms in the stomach. Thus the disease will not be effectively treated. If barberry is used to fight diarrhea, it should be used in combination with a standard antibiotic therapy.


Barberry bushes love sunlight and need lots of heat and direct sunlight. The plant does not need much moisture, and will not tolerate soils that are moist. It is a hardy plant because it can tolerate almost any kind of soil. It is generally propagated by suckers, which are put out in plenty from the roots, but these plants are subject to send out suckers in greater plenty than those which are propagated by layers, therefore the latter method should be preferred. The best time for laying down the branches is in autumn (October), and the young shoots of the same year are the best- these will be well rooted by the next autumn, when they may be taken off and planted where they are designed to remain. Barberry may also be propagated by ripened cuttings, taken also in autumn and planted in sandy soil, in a cold frame, or by seeds, sown in spring, or preferably in autumn, 1 inch deep in a sheltered border when, if fresh from the pulp, or berry, they will germinate in the open in the following spring.

Other Names

berbery, European barberry, mahonia, holy thorn, pipperidge bush, sowberry,
Iranian: zareshk

Scientific Name

Berberis vulgaris Fam: Berberidaceae

Photo by: Misolonax / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)