The Wrack

The Wrack is the Wells Reserve blog, our collective logbook on the web.

The Good, The Bad, and The Thorny

Posted by | November 1, 2001

[ From Watermark volume 18, number 3 ]

by Chuck Lubelczyk

As the saying goes, "There are two sides to every issue."

That seems to be the case this year with that most noxious of plants, Japanese barberry. Anyone who has walked or brushed by (pardon the pun) the plant knows how vengeful its thorns can be. Its impenetrable thickets dominate many parts of the Reserve, crowding out native vegetation such as arrowwood and high-bush blueberry. One might ask, what good is this shrub? Well, barberry might do some good, after all.

Japanese barberry, whose Latin name is Berberis thunbergii, is a close relative to the common barberry Berberis vulgaris. Common barberry is not that common any more. In the 1930's, the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) waged a fairly successful campaign to eradicate the plant, which was found to be a host for a wheat-threatening rust. Now only remnant plants are seen, usually in successional fields or in second growth forests. Previously, though, colonists had used the common barberry as an herbal remedy. Specifically, a chemical named berberine was the active ingredient. It is also the compound that dyes the roots and stems of barberry yellow.

In summer 2000 Stefan Gafner, a Reserve docent-in-training and Tom's of Maine chemist, noticed the thick patches of Japanese barberry while walking the trails at the Reserve. He mentioned the colonists' herbal remedy to Laura Stone, and a seed (so to speak) was sown.

As a result, a hardy and stalwart group of Tom's of Maine volunteers arrived at the Reserve during the May heat wave to remove 100 pounds of barberry root for a new herbal product. The volunteers dug and pulled and cut and hauled and left truly in awe of the barberry's tenacious root system. They got what they needed, though, and according to Stefan, the Kennebunk company's new throat spray looks promising. In the lab, the Japanese barberry seems to perform as well as the common barberry as an ingredient.

In addition to removing the barberry, Tom's of Maine supplied the Reserve with native vegetation to replace removed barberry. Mountain laurel and red cedar were chosen. Both are unpalatable to deer and we hope they will thrive along the border of the Laird Norton Trail. Mountain laurel, a shade tolerant tree, was planted closer to the Saw-whet Trail, where soils are damper. The red cedar, acclimated to drier conditions, was placed in more exposed areas where it can maximize its use of sunlight.

What all this means for the future of invasive barberry at the Reserve is uncertain. The lab work at Tom's of Maine looks hopeful, but will the initial success translate into cost-effective production of a commercially viable product? Can the Reserve supply sufficient barberry root without harmful side-effects to the environment? Time will tell whether this is a neat solution to our barberry problem.

In any event, this situation highlights the potential positive aspects of organisms that many people deem pests. And it underscores the need to learn about, both biologically and historically, those organisms with which we interact on a regular basis.

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