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Fields, Forests & Wetlands Foods of Eastern North America

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2006-10-22Berberis03

The Japanese Barberry by Wildfeuer - Eigenes Werk (CC BY 2.5)

Season: Fall, Winter & Early Spring


Urban, Rural or Both: Both


Barberries Berberis.


To start, I have two warnings about Barberry shrubs. First, they have thorns, and very sharp, tough thorns that can do damage. The second issue with them is they harbour and attract the Black-legged ticks (Ixodes scapularis) which carry Lyme disease. So, your chances of getting a tick on you, and therefore getting Lyme disease is greatly increased by having contact with these bushes. Barberry shrubs are very common landscape shrubs that are very beautiful, so keep the tick issue in mind when you see them. If you gather Barberries in the fall, I strongly suggest wearing a DEET based insect repellent, and being very careful to check yourself over after gathering, and washing your clothes in case a tick is hiding in them. Ticks wait on branches for an animal (you could be the animal) to leap on to. The best alternative to using DEET is to harvest the berries during the winter. The berries become ripe in the fall, and stay good right into spring. By harvesting in the winter, you completely avoid the tick issue - but not the thorns.

There is one shrub/small tree that has fruit that looks very similar to the Barberry shrubs, and is ripe at the same time. It is the Burning Bush (Euonymus alatus). Known also as the Winged Spindle & Winged Euonymus. This is a landscape small tree that has naturalized all over Eastern North America, and is often found in the same places you would expect to find a Barberry. It seems the fruit from the Burning Bush, though not outright poisonous, is not generally accepted as edible. Seems from what I can gather, small amounts won't hurt you. Regardless, you don't want to mistake it and end up making a pile of jam from this one. Most of the time (but not always) you will see what appear to be wing like structures running along the branches. Also, this one does not have thorns, and there is a pair of what look like small Maple keys over the fruit (although they could have fallen off by the time you see it). I have included a picture, so you know what is not a Barberry. When the Burning Bush is small, it can really look like a European Barberry except the fruit is not in big clusters. Also, there are many cultivars of the Burning Bush, so the description is broad.

Pictures on the web of the Burning Bush here (Google images) and here (Bing images).

Pictures on the web of the Burning Bush Fruit here (Google images) and here (Bing images).

This is the Burning Bush (Euonymus alatus). Note the wing like structures on the branches, no thorns, and the Maple key like structure over the fruit, and the fruit is not in clusters of many berries - this is how you know this one is NOT a Barberry.


So, the moral from this story is: If you think you find a Barberry and there are no thorns on the branches, do not eat the fruit. If it does have thorns, it could be a Hawthorn as well, but they are not poisonous, so you may be disappointed, but not made sick.

Recipe search on the web for Barberries from any of the three species listed below here (Google search) and here (Bing search).

All three Barberries I've listed have edible berries that are very sharp tasting when fresh (Vitamin C packed), and can be cooked into jams and jellies, but also can be used in recipes for meals. The European Barberry is cultivated on a large scale in Iran for the berries, and since it is very common and naturalized here in North America, you have a chance to both eat a healthy food right from nature and try some Persian recipes at the same time. One of the more common uses is in meals with rice. See the recipe searches above to find out more. If you can't find them fresh where you live (or don't want to chance getting a tick on you), but do have a middle eastern grocery store near you, you can buy them dried - ask for zereshk.

If you do make jams or jellies from ones you gather, you won't have to use pectin, as the berries are very high in it themselves. Making jams from Barberries is a very old English custom. They were known as pipperages. The custom mainly died out when people started eradicating the Barberry shrub when it was figured out it was an alternate host for the Wheat Rust fungus that was destroying a lot of their grain crops. The Japanese Barberry does not act as an alternate host for the rust.


Growing these three shrubs in your home garden:

The Japanese, and the European Barberry shrub are very commonly used landscaping shrubs, so you would have no trouble finding one or the other at nurseries, and they are very beautiful, but due to the tick issue mentioned above and the fact they are now considered and invasive species in many areas of Eastern North America, you may want to think twice about planting them, and just gathering berries from them where you find them. Also, if you live near where there is wheat farming, be aware that the European Barberry is an alternate host of the fungus known as "Wheat Rust".

For detailed growing instructions, go to my Wild Foods Home Garden website Barberries Page.



American Barberry (Berberis canadensis). I have never eaten the fruit from the American Barberry (doesn't grow where I live), and provide the information for those that live in the Eastern USA where it is known to grow.

You can tell this one from the very similar European Barberry and from the Japanese Barberry by counting the serrations on the leaf margin. If the leaf margin is not serrated (it is smooth), it is the Japanese Barberry. If there are few serrations on the leaf edge (2-12 per side) then it is the American Barberry. If there are more than 16 serrations per side (16-30 is normal per side of each leaf) on a leaf margin, it is the European Barberry.


American Barberry Description:


American Barberry (Berberis canadensis) range. Distribution map courtesy of U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA Natural Resources Service) and used in accordance with their policies.


beca2_001_lvd

American Barberry drawing. (USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. An illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. 3 vols. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York. Vol. 2: 127)



European Barberry (Berberis vulgaris). This is the shrub that is cultivated in Iran for the berries, which are dried and sold in stores as a common ingredient called zereshk. You should have no trouble finding the imported, dried fruit at local middle eastern food stores in larger cities. It is hard to find fresh in stores, but you can gather it yourself and enjoy the better flavor of cooking with fresh Barberries. It was used in England for making jams and jellies. It is now naturalized and common in Eastern North America, and is not difficult to find in Southern Ontario, where I live. Again, a reminder to keep in mind the tick issue and the sharp thorns.

You can tell this one from the very similar American Barberry and from the Japanese Barberry by counting the serrations on the leaf margin. If the leaf margin is not serrated (it is smooth), it is the Japanese Barberry. If there are few serrations on the leaf edge (2-12 per side) then it is the American Barberry. If there are more than 16 serrations per side (16-30 is normal per side of each leaf) on a leaf margin, it is the European Barberry.


European Barberry Description:


European Barberry (Berberis vulgaris) range. Distribution map courtesy of U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA Natural Resources Service) and used in accordance with their policies.


Illustration_Berberis_vulgaris0

Illustration: European Barberry (Berberis vulgaris)


bevu_001_lvd

European Barberry drawing. (USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. An illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. 3 vols. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York. Vol. 2: 127)



Japanese Barberry (Berberis thunbergii). Known also as the Red Barberry and Thunberg's Barberry. This is a very common shrub for landscaping that is used for hedges. This version of the Barberry does not act as an alternate host for the Wheat Rust fungus. It attracts and harbours the tick like the other two.

This one is easy to know from the other two Barberries. The margins of the leaves are smooth (Entire) - that is no sawtooth pattern on the edge. Both of the other two do have sawtooth margins on the leaves. Though commonly sold at nurseries, it is now becoming recognized as an invasive species, so you will find in areas where it has not been intentionally planted - edges of woods, abandoned fields and waste areas, along fence lines and under power lines in clearings. It is tolerant of many conditions.

From an eating perspective, you can treat this one like the European Barberry which is cultivated for its fruit. Very common. This is the most common one you will find in parks, and as an ornamental in gardens and front yards, and property dividing hedges.


Japanese Barberry Description:


Distribution map courtesy of U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA Natural Resources Service) and used in accordance with their policies.


Notice how the edges of the leaves are smooth (entire). This is how you know this is the Japanese Barberry.





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Important Notes when Identifying
Rules & Cautions
Dangerous Plants to Avoid Touching
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