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Berberis vulgaris

Barberry Family [Berberidaceae]  

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Berries: berryZpossible        berryZgreen berryZyellow berryZorange berryZred  (edible but acrid)
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31st Aug 2009, Blackleach Resr, Walkden, Gtr M/cr. Photo: © RWD
A deciduous shrub growing up to 3m high.

31st July 2009, Blackleach Resr, Walkden, Gtr M/cr. Photo: © RWD
The berries are at first a lemony colour, sunblushing to an orange glow.

31st July 2009, Blackleach Resr, Walkden, Gtr M/cr. Photo: © RWD
Berries are oblong and mis-shapen, hanging down in small groups.

31st Aug 2009, Blackleach Resr, Walkden, Gtr M/cr. Photo: © RWD
The berries turn red in autumn and are edible.

5th Oct 2009, Blackleach Resr, Walkden, Gtr M/cr. Photo: © RWD
The foliage is dark green, leaves oval to spoon-shaped.

31st Aug 2009, Blackleach Resr, Walkden, Gtr M/cr. Photo: © RWD
Berries have a black/purple button at the tip.

31st Aug 2009, Blackleach Resr, Walkden, Gtr M/cr. Photo: © RWD
Young shoots are reddish purple, angular or grooved.

12th Oct 2009, Blackleach Resr, Walkden, Gtr M/cr. Photo: © RWD
Leaves have forward-pointing sharp spines on the edges.

12th Oct 2009, Blackleach Resr, Walkden, Gtr M/cr. Photo: © RWD
Mature stems are a woody dark brown with triple barbs emerging at every leaf junction.

12th Oct 2009, Blackleach Resr, Walkden, Gtr M/cr. Photo: © RWD
The sharply pointed triple barbs are at right-angles to each other and at right-angles to the twigs. These must surely be the reason behind the common name: the barb in Barberry.

27th April 2013, Blackleach Resr, Walkden, Gtr M/cr. Photo: © RWD
Newly emerged leaves in Spring.

The globular yellow flowers have some similarities to those of : Oregon-Grape which is in a different Genus (Mahonia) but in the same Family (Barberry).

Slight resemblance to : other Barberries.

Uniquely identifiable characteristics

Distinguishing Feature :

Not to be semantically confused with : Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) [a sub-shrub with similar name]

The small round yellow flowers smell unpleasant and the stamens are set so as to spring onto the stigma when touched. The petals are entire, with deep five cuts; the flower forms an almost closed globe. The berries are very oblate, not poisonous and taste pleasantly acidic and yield a rich source of Vitamin C, sugars and pectin. A pleasant jam can be made from them. Young leaves can be used as a salad for they taste bitter like Sorrel. A refreshing tea can be brewed from the young leaves and shoot tips. The bark tastes bitter. Both root bark and berries are used medicinally.

Historically, Barberry has been used medicinally since 500AD or more. It yields many novel therapeutic compounds, over 22 alkaloids. Barberry is grown commercially for the drugs it can produce. Preparations of Barberry are used to treat liver disease, stomach ulcers, infections and fevers, anaemia, gallstones, fungal infections, malaria, and heart defects. The active alkaloids said to be responsible for its pharmaceutical effectiveness include berberine, berbamine, oxyacanthine, bervulcine, columbamine, isotetrandrine, jatrorrhizine, magnoflorine and vulvacrine. [Your author has failed to find the chemical structures of two of these, vulvacrine and bervulcine, and suspects that either they do not exist, or that there are better-known synonyms for these two 'compounds']. Variously, these alkaloids possess anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant and anti-diarrhoeal. The alkaloids are found in the berries and in the bark of the roots.

Barberry is only moderately toxic; doses of the herb should not exceed 500mg. Overdose is characterized by lethargy, daze, stupor, vomiting and diarrhoea. The alkaloids are moderately poisonous.

Berberine and Magnoflorine (which, despite its name, contains no magnesium nor fluorine) and other isoquinoline alkaloids are all found in Barberry.

The roots and wood are rich in protoberberines (berberine itself, palmatine and yatrorizine (which is synonymous with jatorrhizine) and in bisbenzylisoquionoline derivatives such as oxyacanthine, aromoline, baluchistine, berbamine, berberrubine, berberamunine, berlambine, bervulcine, columbamine, hydroxycanthine, isocordyline, isotetrandrine, lambertine, magniflorine and magnoflorine, oxyberberine, vulvracine, obamegine and aquifoline. The roots contain up to 3% of these alkaloids which impart a yellow colouring to the wood, (due to the presence of Coptine and Berberine, yellow alkaloids which American Indians used a yellow dye). The three most important alkaloids within Barberry are Berberine, Berbamine and Oxyacanthine.


The bisbenzylisoquinoline group alkaloids are dimers of aporphines, such as Magnoflorine and Isocordyline, shown below in the next box. There are about 470 members of this group, only a few of which are found in Barberry. They exhibit a variety of biological effects, including anti-bacterial, anti-malarial, anti-cancer, hypotensive and anti-plasmodic.

Berbamine may help reduce inflammation and is an anti-oxidant. It can also prevent venticular fibrillation perhaps by means of inhibition of sodium and calcium overload; it also exhibits vaso-dilatory and anti-arrhythic effects.

Tetrandrine is identical to Berbamine but with the lower OH group replaced by an OCH3 group.

Aquifoline, first found in Oregon Grape (Mahonia Aquifolium), is identical to Berbamine except that an OH group replaces one of the three OCH3 groups.

Obamegine is identical to Berbamine except that an OH group replaces a different one of the three OCH3 groups.

Aromoline and Baluchistine are related, both have the two oxygen bridges attached at the same places but which differ to those of the upper four compounds.

Oxyacanthine, sometimes spelled Oxycanthine, has the two oxygen bridges attached at yet different positions. This compound has a helical crystal structure by way of a twist in the molecule. Oxyacanthine is less effective medicinally than is Berberine. Oxyacanthine exhibits anti-bacterial activity.

The above are just a small sample of the Bisbenzylisoquinolines that are known, each differing in only slight ways. Others also found in Barberry are isotetrandrine, barbamunine (which possesses only one oxygen bridge between the two aporphine molecules rather than between the two shown in all the other bisbenzylisoquinolines shown, is cytotoxic and a hypotensive agent).


Tubocurarine, which is absent from Barberry, is perhaps the best known bis benzyl isoquinoline alkaloid, being used as an arrow-tip poison with effects similar to those of Strychnine. Unlike the other bisbenzylisoquinolines above, tubocurarine is a zwitterion and mono-quaternary alkaloid, having a single positive charge on the nitrogen atom (which is forced into being 4-valent rather than 3-valent or 5-valent as is normal). This endows it with extra toxicity. Note also the twist in the two oxygen bridges. Curare itself is not just a single compound, nor is it a mixture, but rather there are several different 'curares', tubocurarine (derived from 'Tube' or Bamboo curare being just one. The other two curares are the dimeric Toxiferine and alloferine (both of which are isolated from the plant Gourde Curare), and Protocurarine, Protocurine and Protocuridine (which together are called 'Pot Curare').

[Gourde Curare is a different plant possessing two other 'curares': alloferine and toxiferine which are di-quaternary compounds, possessing a double positive electrical charge.

Pot Curare contains three other 'curares': Protocurarine, Protocurine and protocuridine, none of which are shown here].

To repeat, none of these 'Curare' bearing plants are native to the UK, and all these 'Curare' compounds are absent from Barberry.


Members of the aporphine group that occur in Barberry are Magnoflorine, Magniflorine, Isocordyline, Domesticine and Iso-domesticine plus one member of the Protopine group (γ-homochelidonine, depicted in the box below). They are similar to another aporphine that does not occur in Barberry, Bulbocapnine. Some members of the Aporphine group of alkaloids can reverse the effects of multi-drug resistance.

Isocordyline is sedative, adrenosytic and a cholinergic agent that displays no anti-tussive activity.

Despite its name, the alkaloid Magnoflorine contains no magnesium, nor fluorine. Note that magnoflorine has a positive charge, and is thus able to hold onto a negatively charged ion such as the chloride ion. Other than the charge, there seems to be no difference between magnoflorine and magniflorine, which may not exist as a separate entity. It is a quaternary alkaloid, having a positive charge on the nitrogen atom.

It is almost impossible to find any reference to magniflorine on the web; it may not exist as a separate entity distinct from that of magnoflorine, above.

Domesticine is a novel and selective antagonist of human alpha 2-adrenoceptors.


These are members of the Protopine group of alkaloids that are found in Barberry.

All Protopines exhibit a striking colour reaction when a trace of it in Acetic Acid is then treated with Sulfuric Acid: it turns reddish-violet, which persists for several hours before gradually changing to a dirty blue.

Oxyberberine (synonymous with Berlambine) is one of three of the more important alkaloids found within Barberry.

 Berberine (aka Berberin) is used medicinally as an anti-bacterial for bacillary dysentry and as a uterine stimulant. Berberine also stimulates the immune cells to function better. Anti-tumour properties have also been demonstrated with regard to prostrate and colon cancers. It too is yellow and bitter and also used as a natural dye to dye wood, wool and leather a yellow colour, and its presence in Berberis species is the reason why Berberis was used to dye materials. It is positively charged: a quaternary alkaloid.

Columbamine exhibits anti-bacterial activity. It is positively charged: a quaternary alkaloid.

Jatorrhizine is synonymous with Yatrorizine. It is positively charged: a quaternary alkaloid.

Palmatine is a cytotoxic alkaloid that strongly binds to some single-stranded RNA molecules [poly(A)] which may find uses as an anti-tumour drug. Palmatine has been found to inhibit dopamine synthesis. It is positively charged: a quaternary alkaloid. An 11-hydroxy palmatine derivative has been shown to have an anti-hyperglycaemic effect. It is used pharmaceutically as both an anti-pyretic and a deconvulsant.

Berberruberine lacks the methoxy group present in Berberine cleaves DNA in a different way to Berberine because of binding to the DNA via a dissimilar mechanism. Both display anti-tumour activity. It is positively charged: a quaternary alkaloid.

Homochelidonine differs from Chelidonine by just one absent double bond within the polycyclic rings.

  Berberis vulgaris  ⇐ Global Aspect ⇒ Berberidaceae  

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Berberis vulgaris

Barberry Family [Berberidaceae]  

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