Barberry: A Versatile Source Of Tartness

Historians believe that barberry originated in three places: Europe, parts of North Africa and in Asia. You can also find it in North America where it is sometimes called Oregon grape. There is documentation of barberry being used in Chinese medicine going back 3,000 years. According to Italian legend, barberry was among the thorny plants that made up Christ’s crown of thorns. 

Barberry is no longer as common a plant as it once was, this may be because it is host to a fungus called rust. Rust primarily affects wheat. The rust carried by barberry plants is said to have caused famines in Spain during the 10th century. 

The 17th-century book The Gentlewoman’s Companion offers instruction on how to preserve barberries. This English book — written by Hannah Woolley — states that this can be done by boiling them in wine. The barberries are to be strained after boiling and the resulting liquid reduced with added sugar until it becomes thick. 

In North America, there is native barberry (Berberis canadensis) that is different from the common variety (Berberis vulgaris) brought to the country by European colonists. The Native Americans reportedly taught European settlers about the value of American barberry. 

While barberry had long been suspected of being a carrier of rust — the suspicions go as far back as the 17th century — it was not until the 19th century that definitive scientific evidence of this came to light. In North America, the cultivation of barberry has been banned in agricultural areas due to the potential for it to harbor rust. 

Barberry flavor profile 

Barberry has a high concentration of citric acid and as a result, it is very tart. The Darwin variety of barberry has a reputation for being sweeter than the others. 

Health benefits of barberry 

Barberry’s long history as an herbal health-booster is not without some basis in science. Its effectiveness comes from compounds like: 

  • Vitamins: Barberry is a rich source of some B vitamins and of vitamin C. 
  • Berberine: Barberry is rich in berberine, an alkaloid with numerous health benefits including antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties.
  • Methicillin-resistant staphylococcus (MRSA): The berberine in barberry may be effective against MRSA, which is famous for its resistance to antibiotics. 

With barberry in your diet, you may be able to prevent or treat health issues like: 

  • Diarrhea: The berberine in barberry is considered useful for treating diarrhea due to its antibacterial and antiparasitic effects. Researchers believe that berberine may be effective because it stimulates the production of white blood cells. 
  • Liver ailments: Use barberry as a remedy for problems like jaundice and hepatitis. 
  • Heart disease: Early research indicates that barberry may help to lower cholesterol in people who have type 2 diabetes. 

Common uses 

Traditional uses of barberry involve applying it as a souring agent and using it to make jams and jellies. It was popular for bringing a tart taste to dishes in the years before lemons and other citrus fruit became widely available in Europe. Barberry’s acidity makes it an excellent alternative to red currants for making jelly.

In Iran, barberry is an ingredient in rice dishes and in a sherbet formulated to get rid of bile. The fruit is often served with Afghan curries. In parts of Britain, the leaves are used as a culinary herb. In India, the leaves of some types of barberry— together with the shoots — are sometimes used as a vegetable and as a tea herb.