The Beginners’ Guide to Berberine

Sunergetic Products - Learn more about Berberine

There’s no way around it: plants are amazing. In this article, we want to bring your attention to a surprisingly powerful pick that you may not have heard about: Berberine

Berberine, however, isn’t the new plant in town; it is a revered and robust compound that has been around for centuries. Today, interest in berberine is spiking and will continue to grow, as researchers reveal more and more intriguing discoveries about its superpowers. Curious to learn more? This article gives you a look at this dynamic plant, including where it comes from, what it looks like, the different types of berberine, where it is grown and what it is used for.

What is Berberine? 

Berberine is a bioactive compound that can be taken from several different plants, including the Berberis shrub and an ancient Chinese herb known as Coptis chinensis French. Berberine is also a natural alkaloid chemical with a yellow color. This alkaloid can be found in goldenseal, Oregon grapes, Chinese goldthread, barberry plants, tree turmeric and phellodendron. The berberine alkaloid can be found in various parts of these plants, including the stem, bark and roots.

Our article will focus on these top sources of berberine: goldenseal, Oregon grapes, Chinese goldthread, barberry plants, tree turmeric and phellodendron. By the time you're done reading this article, you’ll know how to identify the different types of berberine sources and where they thrive the most.

Here’s a detailed look into these six plants that contain an impressive amount of the berberine alkaloid:

Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) 

One of the places in which berberine can be found is in a plant called goldenseal. Known as Hydrastis canadensis, orangeroot or yellow puccoon, goldenseal is a perennial herb in the Ranunculaceae buttercup family. Goldenseal is native to southeastern Canada and the eastern United States.

How can you identify goldenseal? Goldenseal may be distinguished by thick and yellow knotty roots. While the stem is purplish and hairy above ground, it appears yellow underground.

The Goldenseal plant is also distinguished by single, small flowers with green and white-tinted stamens. These flowers emerge in the late spring. In summer, the Goldenseal plant produces a single berry with seeds. 

Another species of goldenseal originates from Japan, and is classified by the genus, Glaucidium palmatum.

Most goldenseal plant material originates from wild harvest. Other propagation methods include agroforestry in natural settings mirroring the plant's natural environment, or growing it on farms or in a greenhouse growing lab.

Oregon Grapes (Mahonia aquifolium)

Another source of berberine is Mahonia aquifolium, otherwise known as the Oregon grape. Oregon grapes are a type of flowering plant in the Berberidaceae family, a species native to western North America. It is also an evergreen shrub that can grow up to 3 feet tall by 5 feet wide and is characterized by stunning foliage. In early spring, you can expect to see densely-packed clusters of yellow flowers, followed by the emergence of dark bluish-black

spherical berries. These deeply colored berries are the reason Mahonia aquifolium is referred to as “Oregon Grape.”

Shaded homesites or woodland areas with lots of tree canopies are the ideal location for Oregon grape plants to thrive. This is an attractive plant that can liven up any landscape, thanks to its beautiful “holly” leaves and yellow flowers. Another highlight of the Oregon grape plant is that it can withstand summer drought, grow in poor soils, and does not produce a littering of leaves. Its presence may even attract some winged wildlife — birds love to eat the berries!

Chinese Goldthread (Coptis chinensis)

Berberine also can be extracted from Coptis chinensis, or Chinese goldthread, a plant native to China. You may see Chinese goldthread referred to by other names including ch'uan-lien, coptis rhizome, golden thread, and huang lian. It is a flowering plant and stemless perennial herb that produces a yellow pigment, due to its high alkaloid content. Chinese goldthread has an extensive history of use in China, mainly as an herbal application for a variety of conditions. Due to the intense yellow color, it has also been used as a dye in fabrics such as wool.

Barberry Plants (Berberis)

The Berberis or barberry plant is a type of deciduous and evergreen shrub. It can be found growing throughout locations that have mild, pleasant climates and in subtropical regions of the world, except Australia. South America and Asia have a diversity of species. Europe, Africa and North America have native species as well.

The most well-known Berberis species is the European barberry, Berberis vulgaris. This species can be found growing in the wild in Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and central and west Asia. The plant also has been introduced in North America.

How do you distinguish a barberry plant? Many of the different types have spiny shoots and spines along the edge of the leaves. There are both low-growing shrubs and taller plants in the barberry family. They grow anywhere from around 3 feet tall to around 16 feet tall, making for excellent natural borders, hedges or landscape barriers. Several species of barberry plants are attractive garden shrubs. These shrubs feature ornamental leaves, yellow flowers, and red or blue-black berries. Taller-growing species feature dense and spiny foliage. Many species are deer resistant.

Berberis vulgaris produces an abundance of edible berries, teeming with antioxidant vitamin C. Although edible, these berries have a sharp acidic or sour taste. In the past, Europeans have used the berries to zest up their meals, much like you would use citrus peel. In Iran, the berries are commonly used as a seasoning to add flavor to Persian meals, like rice pilaf and chicken. Persian markets sell dried versions of these berries. In other regions, the berries may be incorporated into jam. Barberry extract also can be used as a natural way to flavor soft drinks, candies, and desserts.

Tree Turmeric (Berberis aristata)

Tree turmeric has several different names including Berberis aristata, Indian barberry, or "chutro.” Where is tree turmeric grown? Belonging to the Berberidaceae family and the genus Berberis, tree turmeric is found in the mild and subtropical regions of Asia, Europe, and America. Tree turmeric is also native to the Himalayas in India and in Nepal, and found in the rainy zone of Sri Lanka. 

What are the telltale characteristics of Berberis aristata? The Berberis is a deciduous evergreen shrub and woody plant featuring an erect spiny shrub, and bark that appears yellow to brown from the outside and deep yellow from the inside. The bark is covered with green leathery leaves that are “toothed,” featuring many small indentations along the edge of the leaf.

The plant itself can grow to approximately 6 feet to 9 feet in height. The flowering season for Berberis aristata begins in mid-March and lasts throughout the month of April. The plant produces yellow flowers and clusters of acidic, edible berries that are bright red in color. The fruit ripens from mid-May through June.

Phellodendron (Cork tree)

Phellodendron, or cork tree, is a deciduous tree native to east and northeast Asia. Part of the family Rutaceae, Phellodendron features leathery leaves and, much like the other plants in this article, clusters of yellow flowers. Most of the species in this genus family features thick, textured cork-like bark.

Phellodendron produces yellow blooms in the spring. In summer, it offers leaves and shade. In fall, the leaves turn bright yellow. In winter, the Phellodendron still stands strong and hardy. It can even withstand zone 4 in the United States, a zone with one of the shortest growing seasons. The winding branches produce black fruit, or drupes, that entice birds and other wildlife during the late fall and winter seasons. The tree can flourish in a variety of soil types.

The Phellodendron is both drought and insect-resistant. This tree is low maintenance with one exception: the drupes eventually fall and scatter, producing unattractive “litter” on your lawn.

Like some of the other plants mentioned, cork tree has been used to as a source of natural yellow dye for fabric.

What’s Next for Berberine?

Berberine has been a part of Chinese folk medicine and Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years. So what can it do for us in the modern age? Researchers are working hard to find that out! 

Many clinical studies have been conducted on berberine. These studies paint a promising picture for berberine and provide a firm foundation on which to continue the exploration of this natural wonder and its potential. The more researchers continue to study berberine, the more they continue to uncover its power and capabilities. We can’t wait to see what ongoing research reveals about this multi-talented plant.

Overall, the future of berberine is bright and will likely get even brighter. Though further research is needed, Berberine benefits are plentiful. In fact, berberine is now being incorporated into teas, extracts and powders. If you want to try a berberine product, start with some research and read the fine print on the labels. When trying any new herb, including berberine, ingredient transparency is key. Look for products containing honest, clean and non-GMO ingredients — ones that are extracted from natural sources and whole foods. You should also look for a company that is committed to quality, potency, purity and the integrity of its manufacturing practices. And don’t forget to search for berberine tea by its source names. You may uncover a lot of products with the names goldenseal, Chinese goldthread, barberry, or tree turmeric in the title. 

Final Thoughts

For more than one thousand years, berberine has been used in a variety of ways throughout Asia, particularly in China and India. Now, people in the United States are also starting to see the light and celebrate the wonders of berberine. Not only do these plants add character to our landscapes, but they also attract wildlife and possess a variety of uses, from natural dyes for our clothing to seasoning for our food.

Because of berberine’s popularity and appeal, you can now find the compound in a variety of products, from mixable powders and blendable extracts to sippable teas or tinctures. Some of these products may be mixed with other herbs, so make sure to read the fine print. Always consult your doctor before trying any new herbal product and do not hesitate to contact the manufacturer if you have any questions.

The plants mentioned in this article — goldenseal, Oregon grapes, Chinese goldthread, barberry plants, tree turmeric and phellodendron — feature the highest concentrations of the powerful compound berberine. As mentioned earlier, clinical research into berberine and the true depth and breadth of its capabilities is in process, so stay tuned to see all the amazing things that berberine has in store for consumers across the United States. 

Nature holds all the wisdom. Now it’s up to us to tap into it!

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