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Known as sour thorn, the barberry is one of the most popular ornamental plants in domestic gardens and can be used effectively as a hedge. Due to its numerous thorns, it is often used as a protective hedge, because at the same time it has a dense growth that does not let any strangers through. A clearly visible characteristic of the barberry are the berries, which makes many people question whether they are poisonous or not.

Barberry: Toxic or not?

The barberry is classified as slightly toxic, as it contains a number of alkaloids that are toxic to organisms. These are found in all parts of the plant except for the berries:

  • root
  • root bark
  • stem bark
  • leaves
  • blossoms

You can collect and eat the berries of barberry without any disadvantages, since they do not contain any toxic substances. But that is only the case for the fruits of the Ordinary Barberry (bot. Berberis vulgaris). All other species of the genus contain the alkaloids themselves in the fruits, which are poisonous and should not be eaten for this reason. These include species such as Juliane's barberry (bot. Berberis julianae) or Darwin's barberry (bot. Berberis darwinii). The fruits of such species are even highly toxic and have a toxic content similar to that of the roots, which together with the bark form the most toxic part of the plant. The leaves are not as toxic in comparison and therefore quite high amounts can be ingested before intoxication occurs. The following list gives you an overview of the alkaloids found in barberries:

  • berberine
  • jatrorhizin
  • palmatin
  • Isotetrandine
  • columbamine
  • berbamine
  • magnoflorin

Berberine is the toxic component most commonly found in plants and for this reason plays the central role in poisoning from the plant.

tip: Don't miss out on eating Berberis vulgaris berries. These contain high amounts of vitamin C and, despite their sour aroma, can be consumed without hesitation.

effect on people

The alkaloids within berberis, most notably berberine, affect the human body in different ways. The scope of the impact is large and includes the following:

  • antiseptic
  • hypotensive
  • inotropic
  • sedative
  • inhibits blood clotting
  • lowers the heart rate
  • lowers LDL levels
  • anti-inflammatory

Some of these modes of action help the body, while others lead to intoxication. It becomes problematic for people whose liver and intestines are not working properly, since the alkaloids are excreted through them. If these function only moderately, the poisoning can be significantly more severe. The general symptoms as follows:

  • nausea
  • Vomit
  • diarrhea
  • somnolence
  • nosebleeds
  • irritation of the kidneys
  • shortness of breath
  • cramps
Barberry is also called vinegar berry

The plant does not pose any serious threats and no deaths have been linked to the plant to date. Adult, healthy people tolerate amounts of up to 500 milligrams and break down most of the alkaloids within a short period of time via the metabolism. Children poison themselves much earlier, as do sensitive or weakened people. With these, care should be taken to ensure that no poisonous parts of the plant are consumed. Since children can easily prick themselves on the plant, many stay away from it.

First aid

If poisoning is suspected, you should keep Calm and consider the following points to help you behave appropriately in the situation:

  • administer fluid
  • water or tea
  • consult a doctor if you eat the bark or roots
  • Detox recommended under medical supervision
Berberis thunbergii 'Rose Glow'

There are actually no long-term consequences with Berberis. In rare cases, long-term consumption of the poisonous parts of the plant can overload the kidneys with the alkaloids, which in turn can lead to kidney damage. So be careful and only eat the berries if you don't want to suffer negative consequences. This is especially important in relation to children, where even small amounts on a regular basis can cause kidney damage.

effect on animals


Dogs react to barberries just like humans and should therefore refrain from eating them as long as it is not the berries. Man's best friends are generally not fans of barberries, as the berries taste sour and the shoots and leaves are studded with thorns. When dogs play with the barberry, it usually turns into pain when the thorns are bitten. An exception are thornless shoots, which are often used for playing when the dog can get hold of them. Poisoning leads to the following symptoms:

  • Vomit
  • upset stomach
  • diarrhea
  • somnolence
  • inflammation of the kidneys
Barberry with dense foliage

Puppies are particularly at risk. Due to the natural curiosity, the leaves and shoots are eaten with pleasure. Older dogs, on the other hand, are more likely to poison themselves when digging in the ground. As mentioned above, the root bark contains the highest amount of toxins. If a dog is digging in the ground and comes across the roots of the barberries, it will most likely chew them or try to dig them up. The dangers are quite high if your pet has constant access to the plants. Make sure that your four-legged friend does not deal too intensively with the plant. As soon as poisoning occurs, go to the hospital as quickly as possible vet. If your dog consumes poisonous parts of the barberry plant over a long period of time, damage to the kidneys can result.


Cats are significantly more susceptible to barberry poisoning than dogs because they explore their surroundings in a completely different way. Barberries are ideal hiding places for your cats, especially if they don't injure themselves on the thorns, which the velvet paws manage to do in most cases thanks to their agility. However, since their sense of smell and taste is much weaker, the animals often chew on the leaves or bark. This is the only way for cats to remember whether the plant is safe or dangerous. This is exactly the moment when they poison themselves. The following symptoms are typical:

  • strangle
  • Vomit
  • Gastrointestinal complaints
  • diarrhea
  • somnolence
  • kidney inflammation

In rare cases, poisoning occurs through the roots, which are the most toxic to animals. However, since cats dig much less frequently than dogs, it is mainly the leaves and bark that can affect the animals. As soon as barberry poisoning is suspected, you should contact a veterinarian as soon as possible. A typical sign of poisoning is the cat's fur. If you find thorns in this, then the animal has stayed with the plant, which is typical for hedges.

tip: Rodents such as hamsters or guinea pigs and lagomorphs react just as intensely to the toxic ingredients in barberries. The greatest dangers include nibbling on the bark and excessive consumption of the leaves, which are particularly hard on pregnant animals.


Since barberries do not grow small and are easily established in many locations, you should be careful if you decide to use the plant on a farm with livestock. While barberry is poisonous to all livestock, the following are at significantly greater risk:

  • horses
  • sheep
  • goats

Horses in particular are very susceptible to the toxic ingredients of buttercups. Due to their high body weight, however, they can withstand large amounts of the toxic components until poisoning occurs. Poisoning occurs more quickly in sheep and goats, but it is not as severe. In most cases, however, the animals are not interested in the plant in any way. It is the leaves in particular that lead to poisoning in horses. The reason is the berries. Horses try to eat the berries and often end up with leaves in their mouths. Symptoms of poisoning as follows:

  • diarrhea
  • somnolence
  • inflammation of the kidneys

In the event of sudden diarrhea, check whether your farm animals have been snacking on nearby barberries. If there have been large amounts, you should monitor your animals closely and contact your veterinarian if there are any signs of persistent symptoms.

notice: Never forget to take a sample of the plant with you to the doctor or vet. With the help of these, the specialists can recognize what is directly involved and which measures should be used here.

notice: Please note that this article is by no means a substitute for a doctor's visit. There is no guarantee of the correctness of medical statements.
Detailed information on first aid in the event of poisoning and important information on the poison control centers can be found here.

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