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(Barberry family)


This family of about 600 species of trees, shrubs, and perennial herbs in 13 or 14 genera is of great horticultural importance. They are natives of northern temperate regions, of South America, and of mountainous regions in the tropics. The principal genus is Berberis L., comprising more than 500 species, many bearing spines as well as having spiny leaves. The family has been expanded in recent years by the inclusion of genera previously classified in the Podophyllaceae, Leonticaceae, etc. (Mabberley 2017).

Many species, varieties, and cultivars of Berberis L. (now including subsumed taxa from the previously separate genera Mahonia Nutt. and × Mahoberberis C.K.Schneid.) have been widely introduced for use in landscape gardening and for ornamental hedges (Hunt 1968/70). Occasional specimens may be grown as bonsai — a Japanese art form produced by artificially stunting growth (Murata 1964, Tomlinson 1990).

The most likely hazard is mechanical irritation caused by the spiny branches and also the spiny leaves of the plants in the genus Berberis. 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.

Berberis L.

This genus comprises more than 500 species, and now includes all of the compound-leaved species formerly ascribed to the genus Mahonia Nutt. Whether Mahonia should be subsumed under Berberis or recognised as a distinct genus has long been debated. In the early years of the 20th Century (see Wright & Dewar 1913), Mahonia was considered to be a synonym of Berberis. In the later years of the 20th Century (see Willis 1973), the two genera were considered distinct. Notwithstanding molecular phylogenetic study, the question is seemingly still not finally resolved: an earlier proposal by Adhikari et al. (2015) that the two genera be once again brought together was soon followed by a proposal by Yu & Chung (2017) that the two genera be yet again separated.

A characteristic feature of the originally-recognised Berberis species is that they almost all have spiny stems as well as simple spiny leaves. Those formerly recognised as Mahonia species have spiny compound leaves but spineless stems (Yu & Chung 2017). Their spiny stems, prickly leaves, and their ornamental nature make them highly suited for use as security hedge and barrier plants. Howes (1946) and Henderson (1987) provide lists of both deciduous and evergreen species utilised in this way in various parts of the world.

The needle-sharp, brittle spines can cause an irritable papular dermatitis in some individuals. The experience of Mitchell & Rook (1979) 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.

Hollander (1927) presented a case of dermatitis venenata in a 26-year old male, which had been present for two weeks, and which involved the neck, shoulders, axillae, elbows, and forearms. Its clinical resemblance to a previously seen case of "barberry dermatitis" was pointed out, but no further detail was provided.

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).

Berberis aquifolium Pursh
[syn. Mahonia aquifolium (Pursh) Nutt.]
Blue Barberry, Holly Mahonia, Mountain Grape, Oregon Grape, Mahonia Faux-Houx, Gewöhnliche Mahonie

[Information available but not yet included in database]

Berberis aristata DC.
[syn. Berberis gracilis hort. ex Lindl.]
Indian Barberry, Nepal Barberry

[Information available but not yet included in database]

Berberis asiatica Roxb. ex DC.
[syns Berberis dealbata Lindl., Berberis hypoleuca Lindl.]
Asian Barberry, Indian Barberry

[Information available but not yet included in database]

Berberis napaulensis (DC.) Spreng.
[syns. Mahonia napaulensis DC., Mahonia nepalensis DC. ex Dippel]
Nepal Mahonia, Nepalsche Mahonie

Referring to Mahonia nepalensis D. Don [sic], Rao (1981) noted that 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.

Berberis napaulensis var. pycnophylla (Fedde) Laferr.
[syns Berberis nepalensis var. pycnophylla Fedde, Mahonia pycnophylla (Fedde) Takeda]

[Information available but not yet included in database]

Berberis nervosa Pursh
[syn. Mahonia nervosa (Pursh) Nutt.]
Cascade Barberry, Cascade Oregon Grape, Long-Leaved Oregon Grape, Mahonia à Nervures Saillantes

[Information available but not yet included in database]

Berberis × neubertii hort. ex Lem.
[syns Berberis ilicifolia hort. non Forst., × Mahoberberis neubertii (hort. ex Lem.) C.K.Schneid.]

This is a hybrid originally described in 1854 as having resulted from cross-pollination between "Berberis atropurpurea" [?= the purple form (‘atropurpurea’) of the Japanese barberry Berberis thunbergii DC.] and "Berberis (Mahonia) aquifolia" [= Berberis aquifolium Pursh],a but subsequently [in 1906] as "B. vulgaris × Mahonia aquifolium".b It is without spines, but has somewhat variable spiny leaves.

A few other examples of what were at the time thought of as intergeneric hybrids between Mahonia and Berberis are provided by Steffen (2021). Unfortunately, not all of the taxa he mentioned have been validly published according to then extant International Code for Botanical Nomenclature [ICBN; now ICN] rules because they are missing a Latin description. And most have not formally been recognised as now belonging to the genus Berberis. Indeed, as artificial hybrids and cultivars, they are more appropriately subject to International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants [ICNCP] rules. Steffen (2021) referred to the following taxa / cultivars, describing them as unattractive, shy to bloom, and of little ornamental value:

× Mahoberberis miethkeana L.W.Melander & Eade [= Berberis × miethkeana (L.W.Melander & Eade) Laferr.] was discovered in 1940 at Miethke’s Nursery and Flower Shop in Tacoma, Washington, USA, but the name was not published until 1954. Seemingly unaware of the earlier publication of the name Mahoberberis neubertii in 1906, Steffen (2021) erroneously believed this to be the first × Mahoberberis to be discovered. It is an evergreen plant sporting two entirely different types of foliage that appear rather randomly placed on the bush. One type is a compound leaf that is well serrated with small spines; the other type is an undivided elliptical-shaped leaf with a thick leathery feel, but it is viciously spined with long very sharp points. The plant makes an excellent security hedge.c

× Mahoberberis aquicandidula H.Jensen ex Krüssm. (Mahonia aquifolium × Berberis candidula) and × Mahoberberis aquisargentii H.Jensen ex Krüssm. (Mahonia aquifolium × Berberis sargentiana) were discovered in seedling batches in Sweden in 1943. The names of the two hybrids were not published until 1950. Wyman (1958) referred to their very spiny leaf margins and to their reluctance to flower. The cultivars × Mahoberberis ‘Dart's Desire’, × Mahoberberis ‘Dart's Treasure’ and × Mahoberberis ‘Magic’ are [probably] derived from one or other of these crosses. The prickly leaves make these cultivars superb barrier plants.d

Berberis thunbergii DC.
Golden-Leaved Berberis, Japanese Barberry, Thunberg-Berberitze

[Information available but not yet included in database]

Berberis vulgaris L.
Common Barberry, Sauerdorn, Gemeine Berberitze

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 stem-rust of wheat (Triticum L., fam. Gramineae) is caused by the [potentially skin irritant] fungus Puccinia graminis Pers. (fam. Pucciniaceae), which needs to spend part of its life cycle on the common barberry. However, numerous other Berberis (including Mahonia and × Mahoberberis) species, varieties, and cultivarsa are also now known to be susceptible to this rust infection. As noted by Ernst (1964), whilst most Berberis species may be grown as ornamental garden plants, their cultivation is prohibited in wheat-growing areas of USA and Canada unless they are known to be either immune or highly resistant to black stem-rust of wheat and therefore cleared for distribution in barberry protected areas.

Berberis wallichiana DC.
Wallich's Barberry

[Information available but not yet included in database]

Caulophyllum thalictroides (L.) Michx.
[syn. Leontice thalictroides L.]
Blue Cohosh, Squaw Root, Pappoose Root, Caulophylle Faux-Pigamon, Cohosh Bleu, Léontice Faux-Pigamon

The dust of the root is irritant to the mucous membranes (White 1887). Reports of dermatitis from handling the root stock (Muenscher 1951, Weber 1937, etc.) apparently refer to this note.

Epimedium sagittatum (Siebold & Zucc.) Maxim.
[syns Aceranthus sagittatus Siebold & Zucc., Epimedium sinense Siebold ex Miq.]
Horny Goat Weed

In traditional Chinese medicine, this plant (and also several other species of Epimedium L.)a,b is a source of yin yang huo (淫羊藿), otherwise known as xian ling pi (仙靈脾) or Herba Epimedii. Referring to Aceranthus sagittatus, Stuart (1911) noted that goats eating the plant are said to be incited to excessive copulation, hence the Chinese and English names. He also noted 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.

Podophyllum hexandrum Royle
[syns Podophyllum emodi Wall. ex Hook.f. & Thomson, Podophyllum sikkimense R.Chatterjee & Mukerjee, Sinopodophyllum emodi (Wall. ex Royle) T.S.Ying, Sinopodophyllum hexandrum (Royle) T.S.Ying]
Himalayan Mayapple, Indian May Apple, Indian Podophyllum, Pomme de Mai, Himalaja-Maiapfel

This species has similar uses to those described under Podophyllum peltatum L. [see below].

[Further information available but not yet included in database]

Podophyllum peltatum L.
American Mandrake, May Apple, Raccoon Berry, Wild Lemon, Wild Mandrake, Podophylle Pelté, Pomme de Mai, Gewöhnlicher Maiapfel, Nordamerikanischer Maiapfel

Persons handling the powdered root in commercial operations can develop ulcerative skin lesions, conjunctivitis and keratitis (Remington et al. 1887, White 1887, Pammel 1911, 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 & Schrecker 1958). Podophyllin (Kaplan 1942) and crystalline derivatives named peltatins (Sullivan & Hearin 1952) have a destructive effect on condylomata (soft warts).

[Further information available but not yet included in database]


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Richard J. Schmidt

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