Berberis vulgaris L., also known as common barberry, European barberry or simply barberry, is a shrub in the genus Berberis. It produces edible but sharply acidic berries, which people in many countries eat as a tart and refreshing fruit.
The shrub is native to central and southern Europe, northwest Africa and western Asia; it is also naturalised in northern Europe, including the British Isles and Scandinavia, and North America. In the United States and Canada, it has become established in the wild over an area from Nova Scotia to Nebraska, with additional populations in Colorado, Idaho, Washington State, Montana, and British Columbia. Although not naturalised, in rural New Zealand it has been widely cultivated as a hedge on farms. It is cultivated for its fruits in many countries.
It is a deciduous shrub growing up to 4 m high. The leaves are small oval, 2–5 cm long and 1–2 cm broad, with a serrated margin; they are borne in clusters of 2-5 together, subtended by a three-branched spine 3–8 mm long. The flowers are yellow, 4–6 mm across, produced on 3–6 cm long panicles in late spring. The fruit is an oblong red berry 7–10 mm long and 3–5 mm broad, ripening in late summer or autumn; they are edible but very sour, and rich in Vitamin C.
The berries are edible and rich in vitamin C, though with a very sharp flavor; the thorny shrubs make harvesting them difficult, so in most places, they are not widely consumed. They are an important food for many small birds, which disperse the seeds in their droppings.
A widely available Russian candy called Барбарис (Barberis) is made using extract from the berries, which are pictured on the wrapper.
In Europe, the berries have been traditionally used as an ingredient in making jam. The berries are high in pectin which makes the jam congeal as it cools after having been boiled. In southwestern Asia, especially Iran, the berries are used for cooking, as well as for jam-making. In Iran, barberries are commonly used as a currant in rice pilaf.
Zereshk (زرشک) or sereshk is the Persian name for the dried fruit of Berberis spp., specially that of Berberis integerrima 'Bidaneh', which is widely cultivated in Iran. Iran is the largest producer of zereshk and saffron in the world. Zereshk and saffron are produced on the same land and the harvest is at the same time.
The South Khorasan province in Iran is the main area of zereshk and saffron production in the world, especially around Birjand and Qaen. About 85% of production is in Qaen and about 15% in Birjand. There is evidence of cultivation of seedless barberry in South Khorasan two hundred years ago.
A garden of zereshk is called zereshk-estan.
Zereshk is widely used in cooking, imparting a tart flavor to chicken dishes. It is usually cooked with rice, called zereshk polo, and provides a nice meal with chicken. Zereshk jam, zereshk juice, and zereshk fruit rolls are also produced in Iran.
It has been widely cultivated for hedges in New Zealand. Berberis vulgaris (European barberry) is the alternate host species of the wheat rust fungus (Puccinia graminis), a grass-infecting rust fungus that is a serious fungal disease of wheat and related grains. For this reason, cultivation of B. vulgaris is prohibited in Canada and some areas of the United States (Connecticut, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire).
Salishan elders have used M. aquifolium to treat acne and native American Indians utilized barberries to treat scurvy. A decoction of the plant has been used to treat gastrointestinal ailments and coughs.
The edible fruits have been used to prepare jams, jellies, and juices. The use of the plant in traditional medicine has been limited by the bitter taste of the bark and root. However, numerous folk medicinal uses for barberry exist. Other reported uses of M. aquifolium include the treatment of fever, gout, renal and biliary diseases, rheumatic symptoms, diarrhea, gastric indigestion, and dermatosis.
Berberine, the active ingredient in barberry, inhibits the growth of bacteria and has antioxidant properties in vitro. Barberry extract may also improve symptoms of certain skin conditions, although more research is needed to confirm these findings.
Barberry fruits have been used in the traditional Austrian medicine internally as tea, jelly or syrup for treatment of disorders of the respiratory tract, fever, infections, cold, and flu.
- Calafate (a related shrub with similar berries, native in temperate South America)
- 1885 illustration from Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz 1885, Gera, Germany
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- Flora Europaea: Berberis vulgaris distribution
- Berberis vulgaris at NRCS
- Berberis vulgaris at abchomeopathy
- Berberis integerrima 'Bidaneh'
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