Although not a local, ancestral plant, I am wondering if you know of any uses for Japanese Barberry (Berberis thunbergii), which is thriving as an escaped ornamental across much of New England. It has such a brightly colored yellow root I can't help but think there must be some medicinal use for it and I am always looking for ways to use "invasives" beneficially instead of just pulling them up. Thank you!
Dear Rob, there are many good uses for Berberis thunbergii. Though non-native, the new aboriginal (those of us who are striving for resiliency and self-reliance in the modern world) can adapt to his or her landscape and learn to connect with all the plants that grow there. The young leaves and fruits are edible, but not a significant source of food. It is the medicine of this plant that is so valuable. Here is an excerpt from Ancestral Plants volume 2 (in prep.):
"The roots are Berberis thunbergii (and Berberis vulgaris) are yellow when the bark is removed, indicating the presence of the bitter-tasting alkaloid berberine, a phytochemical also present in the bark and berries. Additional alkaloids are present as well, including palmatine, glaucine, berbamine, and oxyacanthine. These phytochemicals have antibacterial, antifungal, anti-inflammatory, analgesic, antihistamine, anti-allergy, anticancer, hepatoprotective, immune stimulating, antioxidant, and antipyretic activity. Studies have shown that extracts of the roots/bark have remarkable efficacy against many gram-positive bacteria (e.g., Staphylococcus aureus) and some gram-negative bacteria (e.g., Escherichia coli, Salmonella typhimurium, Shigella dysenteriae, and Vibrio cholerae). This medicine is also active against some species of Candida and Aspergillus (two genera of pathogenic fungi). Importantly, the alkaloid berberine is known to be antispirochetal and has protective effects on endotoxin-induced immune system dysfunction, indicating is has important use in treating Lyme Disease (especially when combined with other herbal remedies). Decoctions of the roots and barks can be taken internally for infections and used externally as washes and irrigation for cuts, burns, and wounds (the medicine would both heal and prevent infection). Teas can also be used for treating bacterial conjunctivitis (an infection of the eye commonly referred to as “pink eye”). As an anti-inflammatory medicine, decoctions block the mediators involved in the early stages of acute infection (e.g., histamine, bradykinin, serotonin) and those involved in the later stages of acute infection (e.g., prostaglandins). They have also been used in the treatment of inflammation associated with rheumatism and gout. Anti-cancer effects have also been documented (especially due to the phytochemical berbamine), with specific use against colon cancer, hepatoma, and leukemia. Berberis medicine assists the immune system, specifically white blood cells, during periods of toxic overload (e.g., chemotherapy, radiation therapy). Given that it is also antioxidant and antitumor, this species may have important use treating (in conjunction with other medications) various types of cancer. Decoction are also valuable for the liver (i.e., they act as a cholagogue), stimulating the flow of bile and bilirubin, which are beneficial for healing liver cirrhosis. The cholagogue action also creates a mild laxative action useful for cleansing and strengthening. Many authors consider Berberis useful for the urinary system and indicate it for urinary tract infections. Extracts of the fruits of Berberis species have been used as an antihistamine and anti-allergy medicine. Further, they are anti-arrhythmic and have mild vasodilation action, the latter action indicating use in treating hypertension (along with dietary and life style changes). Tests show that Berberis thunbergii and Berberis vulgaris have many similar phytochemicals, but the latter is significantly richer in berberine. These plants are not recommended as medicines during pregnancy."