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(Barberry family)


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.

Berberis L.

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).

Berberis vulgaris L.
Common Barberry

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 × Mahoberberis neubertii C.K.Schneid.). 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).

Caulophyllum thalictroides Michx.
[syn. Leontice thalictroides L.]
Blue Cohosh, Squaw Root, Pappoose Root

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.

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

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.

x Mahoberberis neuberti C.K.Schneid.
[syn. Berberis neuberti hort.]

This is a bigeneric hybrid between Mahonia aquifolium Nutt. and Berberis vulgaris L. It is without spines, but has somewhat variable spiny leaves.

Mahonia Nutt.

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.

Mahonia nepalensis DC.
[syns Berberis nepalensis Spreng., Mahonia napaulensis DC.]

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).

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

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]

Sinopodophyllum hexandrum T.S.Ying
[syns Podophyllum emodi Wall. ex Hook.f. & Thomson, Podophyllum hexandrum Falconer ex Royle, Podophyllum sikkimense R.Chatterjee & Mukerjee, Sinopodophyllum emodi 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.


  • Blair J and Yarian NC (1928) Two cases of sporotrichosis infection due to barberry. Journal of the American Medical Association 91: 96.
  • Dispensatory, The National (1884) Philadelphia. Stille and Maisch. Cited by White (1887).
  • Foerster HR (1926) Sporotrichosis, an occupational dermatosis. Med. J. Rec. 123: 530.
  • Gray's Manual of Botany (1970) 8th edn. by Fernald, M.L. New York. Van Nostrand Reinhold.
  • Hartwell, J.L. and Schrecker, A.W. (1958) The chemistry of Podophyllum. Fortschritte der Chemie Organischer Naturstoffe 15: 83.
  • Hausen BM (1970) Untersuchungen über Gesundheitsschädigende Hölzer. Doctoral Dissertation. Universität Hamburg, Germany [url-1] [url-2]
  • Hollander L (1927) Dermatitis venenata. Archives of Dermatology and Syphilology 15: 620.
  • Kaplan, I.W. (1942) Condylomata acuminata. New Orleans Med. Surg. J. 94: 388.
  • Kingsbury, J.M. (1964) Poisonous Plants of the United States and Canada. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. Prentice-Hall Inc.
  • Lloyd, cited by White (1887) Dermatitis venenata: An account of the Action of External Irritants upon the Skin. Boston. Cupples & Hurd. (Lloyd was a wholesale dealer in medicinal plants.)
  • Mabberley DJ (2008) Mabberley's Plant-Book. A portable dictionary of plants, their classification and uses, 3rd edn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press [WorldCat]
  • Muenscher, W.C. (1951) Poisonous Plants of the United States. 2nd edn. New York. The Macmillan Co.
  • Nadkarni AK (1976) Dr. K. M. Nadkarni's Indian Materia Medica. With ayurvedic, unani-tibbi, siddha, allopathic, homeopathic, naturopathic & home remedies, appendices & indexes, Revised enlarged and reprinted 3rd edn, Vols 1 & 2. Bombay: Popular Prakashan [WorldCat] [url]
  • Nelson, L.M. (1953) Use of podophyllin (Podophyllum resin) in dermatology. Archs Derm. Syph. 67: 488.
  • O'Donovan, W.J. (1935) Dermatitis due to podophyllum resin. Brit. J. Dermat. 47: 13.
  • Rao RR (1981) Ethnobotany of Meghalaya: medicinal plants used by Khasi and Garo tribes. Economic Botany 35(1): 4-9 [doi] [url] [url-2]
  • Schwartz WF (1938) Foreign body (barberry) dermatitis. Archives of Dermatology and Syphilology 37: 872.
  • Schwartz, L., Tulipan, L. and Birmingham, D.J. (1957) Occupational Diseases of the Skin. 3rd edn. Philadelphia. Lea and Febiger. pp. 637-672.
  • Seery TM and Bieter RN (1940) A contribution to the pharmacology of berberine. J. Pharmac. Exp. Ther. 69: 64-67.
  • Stuart GA (1911) Chinese Materia Medica. Vegetable Kingdom. Extensively revised from Dr. F. Porter Smith's work. Shanghai: American Presbyterian Mission Press [doi] [WorldCat] [url] [url-2]
  • Sullivan, M. and Hearin J.T. (1952) Treatment of condyloma acuminatum with peltatins. Archs Derm. Syph. 66: 706.
  • Weber, L.F. (1937) External causes of dermatitis. A list of irritants. Archs Derm. Syph. 35: 129.
  • White JC (1887) Dermatitis Venenata: an account of the action of external irritants upon the skin. Boston: Cupples and Hurd [doi] [WorldCat] [url] [url-2]

Richard J. Schmidt

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