The bark of the root and the berries of Berberis vulgaris, Linné.
COMMON NAME: Barberry.
ILLUSTRATION: Bentley and Trimen, Med. Plants, 16.
Botanical Source.—Berberis vulgaris is an erect, deciduous shrub, from 3 to 8 feet high, with long, bending branches which are dotted with triple spines. The leaves are obovate-oval, simple, closely serrulate, alternate, petioled, about 2 inches long, one-third as wide, and terminated by soft bristles. In their primary state they are 3-parted and spiny. The flowers, which are small and yellow, are borne in clusters on lax, pendulous racemes. The petals are entire; the stamens irritable, springing violently against the stigma when touched. The fruit consists of bright red, very acid, oblong berries, clustered in bunches (L.—W.).
History.—This shrub, a native of Europe, and naturalized in Asia, is found in the New England States, on the mountains of Pennsylvania and Virginia, among rocks, and in hard, gravelly soils; occasionally it is found in the West on rich grounds. It flowers from April to June, and ripens its fruit in June. "It is frequently planted in gardens and prized for the beautiful bunches of red berries which hang after the leaves have fallen. The plant is generally a shrub from 2 to 8 feet high, although Loudon is authority that 'there are examples of trees 30 feet in height' and that 'they live for two or three centuries.' The wood contains a yellow, bitter coloring matter, and is sometimes used as a dye. The flowers are in pendulous racemes and appear in May or June. The leaves are obovate, bristly serrate, tapering at the base to a very short petiole. They are agreeably acid, resembling in this respect the leaves of the Nat. Ord.—Oxalidaceae. The French name for barberry, Epine vinette, means literally an acid thorn. The fruit is a bright scarlet berry, and has an intensely, yet agreeably acid taste. It is said to make excellent preserves; was highly esteemed by the ancients, and probably would be now, if other fruits had not been cultivated to such a degree of excellence. The name berberys seems to have been first applied to this fruit by Averroes, an Arabic writer on medicine, who wrote in the Twelfth century" (Berberidaceae, by C. G. and J. U. Lloyd, p. 5). Barberry bark, it is stated, has been used as an adulterant of pomegranite root bark.
Description.—This drug is the foliaceous bark of the barberry root, and occurs in thin sections, having an orange-yellow, smooth inner surface; externally it has a soft, yellow-gray periderm. It breaks with an abrupt fracture, exhibiting a vivid yellow interior. Its laminated structure permits of its being separated into layers. It has a bitter, non-astringent taste, but no odor. When chewed it imparts a yellow color to the saliva. In Europe the whole root is frequently employed. It is thick and tough, very much branched and hard. Externally it has a brown color; internally it is yellow, the color extending throughout the light, thick wood. Like its bark it is bitter and without odor.
Chemical Composition.—Berberine (see Hydrastis) is the active alkaloidal principle of this drug. It has also been found in Hydrastis, Podophyllum, and other plants. According to Brande, the bark likewise contains gum, starch, fatty matter, chlorophyll, bitter yellow extractive (probably the above alkaloid in an impure condition), brown coloring matter, a resinous substance, lignin and water. Other alkaloids have also been found in this bark, viz.: Oxyacanthine (C19H21NO3), also called berbine and vinetine; and berbamine (C18H19NO3) (see Berberis aquifolium). A fourth alkaloid, in an amorphous condition, has also been obtained from it. A very little tannin is also said to be, present. sufficient to give a green color with the ferric salts. The flowers contain sugar and an essential oil, while malic acid is present in the berries.
Action, Medical Uses, and Dosage.—"Berberis vulgaris, a native of Europe, is now quite common in this country, and for many years has been in domestic use as a medicine. A tea made from the bark is taken during the spring months as a blood purifier. A strong decoction is employed as an application to the sores which sometimes afflict children's lips, and in certain conditions of the system demanding tonic treatment, the infusion is a favorite remedy. The fluid extract is usually administered. It is readily prepared by those having the proper facilities, and can easily be made to represent the bark, fluid ounce to troy ounce. It is more satisfactory in its action than the alkaloid berberine" (Lloyd's Berberidaceae). Berberis is a tonic and laxative. Formerly used extensively by practitioners in the New England States, in all cases where tonics are indicated, also in jaundice, and chronic diarrhea and dysentery. The berries form an agreeable acidulous draught, useful as a refrigerant in fevers, also beneficial in dysentery, cholera infantum, diarrhoea, etc. The bark is bitter and astringent, and has been used with advantage as a tonic. The bark of the root is the most active; a teaspoonful of the powder will act as a purgative. A decoction of the bark or berries, has been found of service as a wash in aphthous sore mouth, and in chronic ophthalmia.
Webster declares it of value in jaundice when there is no obstruction of the bile ducts, and in doses short of purgative stimulates the duodenal functions relieving intestinal dyspepsia. Small doses are also palliative in renal calculi, and in soreness, burning, and other unpleasant sensations of the urinary tract.
Related Species.—"Berberis Canadensis is our only indigenous species of the Berberis proper. It very closely resembles the berberis vulgaris, but is a smaller shrub, with smaller leaves, smaller berries, and smaller and fewer flower racemes. Its locality is farther South than the introduced species, being a native of the Southern States. The acidity of the fruit and leaves and the yellow color of the wood are also observed in this species. It closely resembles the foregoing in medicinal properties. Doubtless it contains much the same principles, as the two species closely resemble each other and are used commonly for the same purpose" (Berberidaceae, C. G. and J. U. Lloyd; see also Berberis aquifolium).