This family of some 715 species of herbs and shrubs in fourteen genera is of great horticultural importance. The species are natives of northern temperate regions, of South America, and of mountainous regions in the tropics. It has been expanded in recent years by the inclusion of genera previously classified in the Podophyllaceae, Leonticaceae, etc. (Mabberley 2008).
Many species, varieties, and cultivars of Mahonia Nutt. and especially of Berberis L. have been widely introduced for use in landscape gardening and for ornamental hedges. Occasional specimens may be grown as bonsai — a Japanese art form produced by artificially stunting growth.
The most likely hazard is mechanical irritation caused by the spiny branches and also the spiny leaves of the plants in the genera Berberis and Mahonia. The wood of some species has also been described as irritant, but the nature of the irritant material is unknown. Cases of sporotrichosis contracted from Berberis species have been described.
This genus accounts for about 450 of the species in the family. For horticultural purposes, the species may be divided into two groups: the yellow-flowered Asiatic species and the orange-flowered South American species. Some have edible berries.
Almost all species have stems armed with spines, and they also characteristically bear spiny leaves. The sharp, brittle spines of some species can cause an irritable papular dermatitis in some individuals. The experience of the authors (J.C.M. & A.J.R.) confirms the evidence of the scanty case reports (Schwartz 1938) that those clipping or trimming barberry hedges are most at risk. The eruption consists of firm inflammatory papules and nodules at the sites of injury. They are histologically non-specific and they resolve in 7–10 days. It is not proven whether chemical irritation or a foreign body reaction is involved.
A similar dermatitis caused by contact with the irritant wood of some species has also been discussed (Hollander 1927) but not fully substantiated.
Berberine, one of the many alkaloids present in Berberis species, may cause local anaesthesia and hyperpigmentation following intracutaneous injection (Seery & Bieter 1940). It has been used in Indian indigenous medicine by intracutaneous injection in the treatment of oriental sore, a form of cutaneous leishmaniasis (Nadkarni 1976). Other reactions to berberine are noted under Argemone L. (fam. Papaveraceae).
This and other species of Berberis may be a source of the fungal infection sporotrichosis, which manifests itself dermatologically (Foerster 1926). Ten of 14 employees in a tree nursery in Wisconsin, USA acquired this infection from the barberry. Two further cases were reported by Blair & Yarian (1928), and one of the authors (A.J.R.) has seen a student-gardener similarly affected.
The destructive black rust of wheat (Triticum L., fam. Gramineae) caused by the fungus Puccinia graminis Pers. (fam. Pucciniaceae) needs to spend part of its life cycle on the common barberry (or alternatively on x Mahoberberis neuberti C. Schneider). This is the reason for the advice to destroy barberry bushes in wheat-growing districts. Other species of Berberis are apparently not affected.
The wood of Berberis vulgaris and some other species has a limited use in turnery and in-lay work. Those who handle the wood may develop colic and diarrhoea (Hausen 1970).
The dust of the root is irritant to the mucous membranes (Lloyd). Reports of dermatitis from handling the root stock (Muenscher 1951, Weber 1937, etc.) apparently refer to this note.
In Chinese traditional medicine, this plant (and also several other species of Epimedium L.) is a source of Yin Yang Huo, otherwise known as Herba Epimedii. According to Stuart (1911), goats eating the plant are said to be incited to excessive copulation, hence the Chinese and English names. He also notes that in addition to the use of the plant as an aphrodisiac, a decoction prepared from the roots and leaves is used in corneal affections and ulcerations of the eye after exanthematous diseases.
This is a bigeneric hybrid between Mahonia aquifolium Nutt. and Berberis vulgaris L. It is without spines, but has somewhat variable spiny leaves.
The 70 or so species of shrubs in this genus are characterised by the presence of spiny pinnate leaves, and the absence of spines on stems and branches.
The Khasi and Garo tribes of Meghalaya, India express the juice from the green peel of the bark and, after diluting with water, use the solution as eye drops for various eye disorders (Rao 1981).
The pulp of the ripe fruit is edible, being used in preserves and beverages (Grey's Manual 1970). Persons handling the powdered root in commercial operations can develop ulcerative skin lesions, conjunctivitis and keratitis (Dispensatory 1884, White 1887, O'Donovan 1935, Kingsbury 1964, Schwartz et al. 1957, Nelson 1953). The root yields podophyllin resin which is a varying mixture of 16 or more physiologically active compounds (Hartwell and Schrecker 1958). Podophyllin (Kaplan 1942) and crystalline derivatives named peltatins (Sullivan and Hearin 1952) have a destructive effect on condylomata (soft warts).
[Further information available but not yet included in database]
This species has similar uses to those described under Podophyllum peltatum.