Herb: California Barberry

Latin name: Mahonia pinnata

Synonyms: Berberis fascicularis, Berberis pinnata, Mahonia fascicularis

Family: Berberidaceae (Barberry Family)

Medicinal use of California Barberry:

The bark is antirheumatic and febrifuge. A decoction has been taken internally in the treatment of rheumatism, ague, consumption and heartburn. A decoction has been used as a wash for cuts and bruises. The liquid obtained from chewing the roots has been used as a salve and to prevent swelling from wounds and abrasions. Berberine, universally present in rhizomes of 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. It should not be used with Glycyrrhiza species (Liquorice) because this nullifies the effects of the berberine. Berberine has also shown antitumour activity. The root and root bark are best harvested in the autumn.

Description of the plant:


180 cm
(6 feet)

to May

Habitat of the herb:

Rocky exposed places and woody slopes below 1200 metres.

Edible parts of California Barberry:

Fruit - raw or cooked. An acid flavour but rather nice raw, especially when added to muesli or porridge. Unfortunately, there is relatively little flesh and a lot of seeds. The fruit is about 6mm in diameter.

Other uses of the herb:

A green dye is obtained from the roots. Dark green, violet and dark blue-purple dyes are obtained from the fruit. A green dye is obtained from the leaves.

Propagation of California Barberry:

Seed - best sown as soon as it is ripe in a greenhouse. It usually germinates in the spring. "Green" seed (harvested when the embryo has fully developed but before the seed case has dried) should be sown as soon as it is harvested and germinates within 6 weeks. Stored seed should be sown as soon as possible in late winter or spring. 3 weeks cold stratification will improve its germination, which should take place in 3 - 6 months at 10C. Prick out the seedlings when they are large enough to handle and grow them on in the greenhouse for at least their first winter. Plant them out in late spring or early summer and consider giving them some protection from the cold for their next winter. Division of suckers in spring. Whilst they can be placed direct into their permanent positions, better results are achieved if they are potted up and placed in a frame until established. Leaf cuttings in the autumn.

Cultivation of the herb:

Rocky exposed places and woody slopes below 1200 metres.

Known hazards of Mahonia pinnata:

None known

Plant information taken from the Plants For A Future.