Years ago barberry root bark was widely used to dye wool a lovely yellow, but the plant was mainly grown for the berries. Its country name of ‘pipperidge bush’, derived from ‘pepon’ a pip and ‘rouge’ red, describes the berries.
Barberry, berberis vulgaris, is a tall thorny shrub which used to grow wild in the hedgerows and on the edges of woodland. It was then discovered by farmers that barberry is a harmful plant when growing near wheatfields as it is host to wheat rust fungus which can damage the crop. Nowadays it is cultivated as an ornamental shrub in the garden. Barberry is a deciduous shrub which grows into a dense bush, with small spiny leaves growing in clusters up the stems. The golden yellow flowers have a strong, not unpleasant, smell and grow in hanging clusters from the axils of the leaves. The vivid scarlet berries which appear in the autumn are quite long and most attractive to look at, but have a rather sour taste.
In the kitchen, barberries can be used to make jams and jellies. The unusual flavour goes well with cold meats and game dishes.
Barberry can be propagated by seed, cuttings or layered root suckers, which is the most successful method. In October, bend the sucker down, cover with soil leaving only the tip showing, and use a stone or wire hook to keep it in place. It will root by the following autumn.
The berries and the bark of the root are both used medicinally, but the bark should only be used under strict medical supervision as it contains berberine which is very toxic. Gather the berries in the autumn when they are fully ripe and dry and store them in the usual way. The root can be gathered either in the spring or the autumn.
Barberries can be used in the home for mild disorders of the liver and the digestion. They relieve biliousness and are a mild laxative.
* To make a drink using dried crushed barberries: Soak a handful of the berries in 2 cups of water for a good hour. Bring the mixture to the boil then remove from the heat. Leave until it is just warm then strain, sweeten with a little honey and take a small glassful 2— 3 times a day.
Barberries are full of Vitamin C and a syrup or jelly made from the berries is an effective remedy for coughs and sore throats and is soothing for those suffering from tonsillitis.
* To make barberry jelly using fresh berries: Use equal quantities of washed berries and sugar. Place them in an enamel or stainless steel pan over a low heat. Stir frequently until the sugar has completely dissolved. A small bunch of sweet cicely leaves can also be added to remove some of the tartness of the fruit. Bring the mixture to the boil and boil rapidly for about 10—15 minutes until it reaches a jelly-like consistency. Strain quickly into warm sterilized jars and cover when the jelly has cooled.