Wednesday, June 5, 2013


This week I'd like to introduce you to another plant of the Sonoran Desert.  You may be familiar with this family as it is widespread and contains many species.

Berberis wilcoxii

Berberis haematocarpa

So many times when I have taken visitors on a tour of the Desert Museum grounds, I get asked about that "holly-looking plant".  Visitors invariably notice these interesting plants and ask the docent about them as it reminds them of a familiar plant from home.  Both species above, along with another one you’ll be surprised about, are barberry species, in the genus Berberis and the family Berberidaceae, and are planted in our Mountain Woodland.  The third species is B. longipes, a Sierra Madre plant that grows in tree, rather than bush, form.  The B. wilcoxii and B. longipes are located behind the benches facing the bear enclosure, while the B. haematocarpa is along both sides of the path near the wolf enclosure.  Two more species, B. fremontii and B. trifoliate are included the Desert Museum’s collection.  Look for B. fremontii in the Bee Garden, and B. trifoliate in the Desert Garden.

Berberis is a very large genus of perhaps 500 species worldwide, many of which are widely planted as landscape specimens, and some imported species of which have become invasive.  Barberries are closely related to the genus Mahonia, and some references use the names interchangeably.

The genus Berberis has many antibacterial, antitumor and tonic medicinal uses.  Berberine, universally present in rhizomes of Berberis and Mahonia species, has marked antibacterial effects and is used as a bitter tonic.  Since it is not appreciably absorbed by the body, it is used orally in the treatment of various enteric infections, especially bacterial dysentery.  For highest concentrations, the root and root bark are best harvested in the autumn.

The primary bioactive constituent of the species in the Berberidaceae family is the yellow alkaloid berberine.  It is found in the foliage, stems and roots, although usually strongest in the roots. The roots and lower yellow stems are gathered from midsummer to winter, the leaves from May through mid-fall. The cleaned roots are chopped while still fresh since they become very dense and hard once dry. If there is a layer of brown bark on the stems and roots, this is scraped off and only the yellow parts are used. The leaves can be collected and dried in a paper bag. The dried leaves, stored away from any light, will last for up to a year. The dried roots and stems will last for several years.

 In the Southwest, curanderas boil the leaves in water and drink the tea twice a day for anemia, and take the decoction early in the morning before eating to bring on menstruation. The leaves or roots are boiled or tinctured and taken internally to cleanse the blood. The Navajos use a decoction of the leaves and stems to relieve the inflammation of rheumatism. The tea from the roots has been used as an alterative, antisyphilitic, diuretic and laxative. Of the species with juicy berries, the ripe berries can be made into a tasty jam that some call happy berry jam because it tends to lighten depressed moods.

Plants in the family Berberidaceae all have high concentrations of xanthophyll (yellow) pigmentation in the stem. A yellow dye is obtained from the inner bark of the stem and roots. An ink is made from the wood. Dark green, violet and dark blue-purple dyes are obtained from the fruit. A green dye is obtained from the leaves

Six species of Berberis have been identified in Arizona.  The most common of these is B. haematocarpa, known also as red barberry for the red, juicy berries it produces.  It can be found growing in desert grasslands and oak woodlands, from 3000’ to 5000’ in elevation.  On our recent visit to Arivaca Cienaga, many large red barberry plants were blooming along the paths.  Growing to about 12’ tall and 12’ wide, the dense evergreen shrub makes a good wildlife cover.  The fragrant flowers have 6 yellow petals and stamens and grow in a loose cluster.  The fruits can be used to make red jelly, and are relished by birds, while the root and bark are useful for making a yellow dye.  Leaves are pinnately compound with 3-5 leaflets which are lobed, each of the lobes ending in a sharp spine. 

B. trifoliate, also called trifoliate barberry, has narrow leaves with 3 leaflets, each of which is deeply lobed.  Flowers are also very fragrant and the fruit edible.  B. fremontii grows at higher elevations, typically 4-7000', in pinon-juniper and pine woodlands, and blooms from April to July.  The Hopis use the wood for crafts and the roots for yellow dye. 

The Desert Museum has an incredible collection of plant species, and it seems that every time I’m on the grounds I notice something I hadn’t seen before.  It’s a constant learning experience. 
Epple, Anne Orth; A Field Guide to the Plants of Arizona; The Globe Pequot Press, 1995, pp.72-74
Montgomery, George; Curator of Botany, Arizona Sonora Desert Museum; personal correspondence
Journal of the Arizona-Nevada Academy of Science, Vol. 26 (1), 1992, pp. 2-4



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  2. I had no clue. Thanks for sharing this info. I have seen it in various I know:)

  3. Very interesting. I so enjoy learning more about plants and their many uses.


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