Foraging with the Wildman: American Barberry

Wildman Steve Brill is the go to guy for foraging so we went to the Wildman to learn about just that. Having made a name for himself nationally for his extreme knowledge and experience of edible and medicinal wild plants and getting arrested in Central Park back in 1986 for eating a flower, Steve will now share his know how with Under the Tuscan Gun.com in a weekly post showcasing different wild plants each week. This week: American Barberry.

Alternatively Known As:

Allghenny Berry, Pepperidge Bush, Sourberry

This small to medium-sized shrub has smooth, dark, reddish brown bark, branches armed with three-parted spines, and yellow wood. The thick, smooth, oval, alternate leaves, one to two inches long and about 0.66 inches wide, with two to 12 bristly teeth, cluster(ed) so tightly at the end of short spur branches that they look whorled. Tiny, yellow, six-petaled flowers bloom around the start of mid-spring in groups of three to five, growing on slender, long flower stalks attached to drooping racemes originating in the leaf axils. If you touch the flowers at the right stage, they snap back and release a puff of pollen. The dry, red, oval to oblong berries, about 0.5 inches long, also hang in loose clusters. Each contains one or two hards seeds.

Habitat:

Full sun or partial shade, in mountains, on hills, along stream bansk, in dry woods, among rocks, near rivers and in rocky slopes and fields.

Primary Habitats: Fields, Thickets

Secondary Habitats: Fields, Thickets

Range:

This shrub grows mainly in the southern Appalachians, but you may also find it in New England, the Mid- Atlantic states, parts of the Midwest, and Canada. Distribution is potty because it was eradicated in many areas in the past, in an unsuccessful attempt to stop the spread of wheat rust.

Seasons:

Primary Seasons: Early Summer

Other Season: Mid Spring – Mid Summer

The young leaves are edible from mid-spring through early summer, and the berries ripen in the early summer

How to Spot:

Look for a small to medium-sized shrub that has smooth, dark, reddish brown bark, three-parted thorns on the branches and trunks. Clustered at the ends of short spur branches are thick, smooth, oval, alternate leaves with two to 12 brisly teeth. Drooping racemes of tiny, yellow, six-petaled flowers grow in groups of three to five, and dry, red, oval to oblong berries hang in loose clusters.

Positive Identification:

  • Small to medium-sized shrub with smooth, dark, reddish brown bark
  • Three-parted thorns
  • Yellow wood
  • Thick, smooth, oval, alternate leaves, one to two inches lonag and about 0.66 inches wide, with two to 12 bristly teeth
  • Alternate leaves clustered at the ends of short spur branches, resembling whorled leaves
  • Tiny, yellow, six-petaled flowers in groups of three to five, on long slender flower stalks growing on drooping racemes originating from the leaf axils.
  • Dry, red, oval to oblong berries hanging in loose clusters
  • One to two hard seeds in each berry

Confusing Factors:

The common barberry is so similar to the American species that botanists used to classify the American shrub as a subspecies of this European one. The common barberry had gray instead of reddish brown bark, and its leaves have 16 to 30 teeth instead of two to 12. Its uses, habitats, and range are similar to its American relative.

The Japanese barberry, with unpalatable berries and edible young leaves, grows across much of Northern North America and parts of the Southwest, but not in the Deep South. Its leaves lack teeth, and thorns have one part, not three, like the American species.

Harvesting:

Punch a hole in the top of the food container, insert a key ring and attache it to your belt with a key clip, to free both hands for picking. Bring additional food containers to transfer your harvest when your collection container gets full. Wear heavy-duty work gloves with the fingertips cut off your picking hand, for protection against the thorns. Long sleeves and long plants are very helpful, as is foraging early on a relatively cool morning.

Food Uses:

Food Uses: Fruit/Berry, Potherb, Salad

Parts to Use: Fruits/Berries, Leaves

American barberries are very tart, so they’re used to perk up dishes with less acidic fruits, such as peches or mangoes. You can use the fresh berries, or dehydrated and reconstituted ones, in pies, tarts, jams, jellies, and as a sour flavoring ingredient in desserts. For cooked recipes, remove the seeds with a food mill after cooking the berries with some fruit juice.  You may also add a sweetener and thickener. You may also pickle the berries, or puree the cooked berries in fruit juice and a sweetener to make a traditional drink, again, with the seeds removed. The sour-flavored tender, young leaves are edible as well. Add them to salads or sandwiches, use them as garnishes, or add them to cooked vegetable dishes. They cook in about 10 minutes.

Nutrition:

Barberries are a good source of vitamin C.

Medicinal Uses:

A decoction of the cambium or the roots contain beberine, which has antibiotic and anti-cancer effects, but it isn’t absorbed through the digestive system, so it’s used for bacterial infections of the digestive tract, especially dysentery. Berberine also has demonstrated anti-tumor activity, which should be followed up with additional research.

The decoction has also been used for fevers, indigestion, diarrhea, arthritis, jaundice and liver disorders, and various acute inflammations, as well as for vaginal yeast infections. Native Americans chewed the rhizomes for painful canker sores.