Barberry and Oregon Grape, Berberis vulgaris, mahonia repens; (Berberidaceae)
The genus Berberis is a large one, comprising shrubs or trees widely distributed throughout temperate regions and in the mountains of the tropics. Of the genus, the Rocky Mountain group yields Berberis aguifolium and other species. It is a low ground cover, with evergreen, coriaceous, bright and shining leaves, and having numerous small, yellowish-green flowers in the early spring, and later clusters of purple berries containing an acid pulp. The color of the autumn leaves of the Oregon Grape have earned the plant its Spanish name, verba de sangre, herb of the blood.
The leaves are pinnate, usually with seven or nine leaflets, in pairs along a thin but tough stem. They are rough-textured, wavy margined on somewhat prickly edges, and darker above than below. The main stems seldom rise more than an inch or two, and are actually not so much stems as the upper extensions of the many creeping thin roots that form interconnected colonies. Both the stems and roots have a bright yellow pith color and are intensely bitter, owing to the presence of the alkaloid berberine.
Oregon Grape is the sister plant to Barberry. It has a high berberine content, which cleans the bile, makes it flow better from the liver and gall bladder, and carries poisons from these important cleansing organs out of the body. Oregon Grape is classified as a blood cleanser or “blood sweetener”. It is also one of the best liver stimulants. If the liver is torpid and the bile sluggish, retained in the system, it can cause a number of seemingly unrelated problems: skin eruptions, indigestion, and so on. Being fully aware of what is causing the blood impurity in the first place (or we should never be able to overcome it), we can use Oregon Grape to slowly but surely cleanse the bloodstream. It will create appetite, promote digestion, improve absorption, and increase strength and vitality. It gently improves bowel evacuation and urine elimination and is very healing to the lymphatic and skin tissues (SNI-L 73).
Berberis aquifolium is the American native of the Berberis family, found usually on the mountain ranges of the Pacific coast area. The Indians there made a decoction of the roots which they took for general debility or to create an appetite. Such uses were picked up by the settlers and the use of roots as a bitter tonic was introduced into American medicine during the late 1800’s. Oregon Grape was official until almost 1950 (Hyl:353).
While the bark of the root was the official drug, the berries, leaves, and bark have been used. The leaves were chewed for acne. Some Indians used the roots and bark for ulcers, as a tonic, for heartburn, and for rheumatism. A root decoction was used for cough, kidney and liver ailments, and as a wash for cuts and bruises (Ibid.). The Catawba tribe boiled the stems and roots to take for an ulcerated stomach. Along with Barberry, which Dr. Christopher considered almost interchangeable with Oregon Grape, it was introduced into American medicine in 1877 by Dr. J. H. Bundy (Vog:330).
Other names for the herb include Holly Berry, mountain grape, wild Oregon Grape, rocky mountain grape, holly-leaved barberry, California barberry, trailing mahonia, and just plain mahonia. Michael Mooregrieves that botanists get too picky about naming the plant. Most agree that the berberis name applies to plants that have smooth leaves and stem thorns and are deciduous. The mahonia classification has prickly leaves but no stem thorns and is evergreen; this is our plant, but there is yet some confusion about the botanical names. Some botanists ignore the differentiation, Michael Mooreexplains, and retain the single Berberis genus for both types. He thinks that there is too much confusion about the old Latin names in general, and that “it seems an unnecessary perversion to have this poor plant listed variously as Berberis repens, Mahonia repens, Berberis aquifolium, Odostemon repens, and Odostemon aquifolium!” He says that it is still an excellent remedy, whatever the name (Michael Moore : 119).
The uses of Oregon Grape are nearly identical to Barberry; you should see the newsletter on Barberry to obtain that information. It is said to be more effective in cases of liver malfunction of a constitutional or chronic nature, and is used more effectively externally for staph infections. Dr. Christopher said that it worked somewhat better in scorbutic and syphilitic problems. Unlike Barberry, it seems to exert a mild stimulating influence on the thyroid function (Michael Moore : 117).
Oregon Grape root, because of its purifying action on the liver and bile system, will treat all skin diseases due to toxins in the blood, including psoriasis, eczema, herpes, and acne. It is also useful in treating rheumatoid arthritis and hepatitis (Michael Tierra (The way of Herbs): 107). Dr. Shook said, in differentiating the use of the two (if you should happen to have both available), to use Oregon Grape root for scrofulous and syphilitic cachexias, and barberry for chronic dyspepsia, jaundice, and liver disease. It is good to know the subtleties between both plants, but also good to know that they could be interchanged, if necessary.
Dr. Shook’s recipe for Oregon Grape root included 1 pound of the cut root, 1 gallon of distilled water, and ½ ounce of diluted phosphoric acid. Dissolve the phosphoric acid in the water, add the root and let stand for two hours, stirring occasionally. Boil slowly until the root is barely covered. Strain and set liquid aside. Put the bark back into the saucepan and add 3 pints of fresh distilled water. Boil down again until the root is just covered with the water. Strain and combine the two liquids. Again boil down to one pint. Add one pint of glycerine, blend thoroughly, cool, bottle, and keep in a cool place (ShoA:208). This is said to be good for a tonic, laxative, hepatic, and digestive agent. It is also a good nerve tonic.
Oregon Grape was believed to have specific action on the spleen and was administered in cases of malaria where the spleen was dangerously enlarged; this was risky, however, since the ability to produce contraction was so strong that there was a possibility of rupture if the herb was taken by a person whose spleen was dangerously softened (Weiner: 146).
Oregon Grape root has mild antiseptic effects and is thus useful in douches for vaginitis(Michael Tierra (The way of Herbs): 107). It is recommended to treat leucorrhea and to help the body rid itself of yeast infections when combined with scrupulous cleanliness and internal use of the herb (Mal:250-2). It is mentioned as a specific to increase appetite (Lewis:2 13). It has been used for bronchial congestion.
Dr. Christopher said that in cases of chronic constipation, Oregon Grape root combined with cascara sagrada would clear the condition, taken in wine glass full doses. For skin diseases, he said, use the strong decoction internally and externally, either as a wash or a fomentation.
Evidently the berries of this plant make “the most incredible purple-blue jelly” (Lang:26). This jelly can be used medicinally as well as at the table. The berries, once gathered, should be processed immediately. To make the jelly, use your favorite recipe or the following from Dr. Shook:
2 pounds of fresh Oregon Grape berries
1 gallon distilled water.
Boil until the water is just level with the top of the berries. Mash the berries to a pulp; then strain through a sieve and press. Return liquid to a clean saucepan (enamel is best; do not use aluminum or iron), add 1-1/2 pounds of brown sugar and simmer for another ten minutes, or until the syrup is not in excess of three pints. Pour into hot sterile jars, seal, cool, and store in a cool, dark place (ShoA:209).
The berries can likely be used in the same ways as the barberries are; check that newsletter for these uses.
It cleans and promotes the flow of bile from the liver and gall bladder, it is a liver and kidney ailment, good for skin eruptions and acne and indigestion, it promotes bowel movements and helps constipation, good for general debility, used as a bitter tonic, helps ulcers and ulcerated stomach, heartburn, rheumatism and arthritis, cough, cuts and bruises, for scorbutic and syphilitic problems, stimulates the thyroid function, for herpes, for psoriasis and eczema, for hepatitis, as a nerve tonic, for malaria, enlarged spleens, vaginitis, yeast infections, leucorrhea, bronchial congestion and to increase the appetite.
For syphilis, he recommended a combination:
2 drains Oregon Grape root, cut or powdered
1 1/4 drains red clover
1 dram burdock seeds
1 dram cascara sagrada
4/5 dram blue flag
2/3 dram prickly ash
2/3 dram blood root
This was to be made into a standard decoction and taken 2 tablespoonfuls at a time three or four times a day. Dr. Christopher also said that at times this herb could be substituted in formulas for golden seal as a tonic.
CULTIVATION, COLLECTION, PREPARATION
Oregon Grape occurs in the wild, but it can be cultivated easily in the garden. It is propagated by seeds, cuttings, suckers, and layers. Sow the seeds in flats or broadcast beds in fall; in most cases, they will germinate by spring. For cuttings, place green cuttings of young wood in sand in a shady bed. The roots put out suckers to form a hedge, and you can also layer the branches for the same effect. We have grown Oregon Grape for many years in our backyard in less than ideal conditions (too much shade, too much moisture) and it throve. It is of very easy culture.
The roots are collected in the fall, or anytime needed. Clean them carefully and cut into pieces. Dry them on screens until they are snap dry and do not feel cool to the touch. You can store them as is or powder them for storage.
B. repens, creeping barberry, has bluish-green leaves, with three to seven leaflets, and crawls low over the ground. It is similar to B. aquifolium.
B. nervosa a free-suckering dwarf variety, has large lustrous leaves of 11 to 19 leaflets.
B. bealei or japinoca is not as hardy as the others and grows up to 12 feet high (Hyl:353).
B. Asiatica grows in dry valleys of the Himalayas, and in other eastern areas. It is used as a blood-purifier and quinine substitute.
B. Aristata is the Indian Barberry, a common household remedy in India used similarly to Barberry (fi~ vul~aris).
B. lvcium grows in the western Himalayas; it is used in many medicinal ways, particularly hemorrhoids.
B. nepalensis grows in the outer Himalayas.
Berberine in overdoses--and this includes Barberry and the Oregon Grape root--is said to produce feverishness, inflammation of the mucous membranes from the throat to the intestines, and dysentery. It causes a high degree of inflammation of the kidneys with hematuria. It seems to act with much force upon the venous system, causing pelvic engorgements and hemorrhoids(Mills:56). However, if the herb is used prudently, no such reactions should occur; the herb is perfectly safe to use.
DR. CHRISTOPHER’S COMBINATIONS CONTAINING OREGON GRAPE
The Red Clover Combination, the wonderful blood cleansing tea that is so useful in almost all ailments, contains Oregon Grape. This is available in capsules and in a syrup form.