Continuing the discussion of berberine-containing plants as Chinese-Western substitutes for each other, we first looked at using goldenseal in place of the Chinese herb, coptis (or vice versa if you can’t find cultivated goldenseal). Here we consider another substitution – barberry/Oregon grape for the Chinese herb phellodendron.
Barberry/Oregon Grape – Phellodendron
The exact substitution of barberry or Oregon grape for phellodendron is not as clear-cut as is coptis for goldenseal (or vice versa). Although all these herbs contain berberine and are cool to cold in energy and have a bitter flavor, phellodendron has a special property for which barberry or Oregon grape do not directly substitute. I’ll explain why below after I present each herb.
Barberry (Berberis vulgaris; Berberidaceae family) and Oregon grape (Mahonia spp.; Berberidaceae family) are both so similar that they are discussed and used interchangeably by most herbalists. Barberry is from Europe while Oregon grape is from – well you can guess where (although it’s found all throughout the Pacific Northwest). Like goldenseal, however, Oregon grape is on the “to watch” list for becoming endangered and so it’s important to only use the cultivated plant or barberry instead.
Both barberry bark/root bark (pipperridege bush, tree turmeric, jaundice berry, sowberry) and Oregon grape root (holly grape, mountain grape, creeping barberry) have a cool energy and bitter flavor and affect the Liver, Gallbladder, Stomach, and Large Intestine in the middle and lower parts of the body. They have cholagogue, alterative, hepatic, laxative, anti-inflammatory, bitter stomachic, antimicrobial, and astringent properties. They are some of the mildest and best liver tonics known and treat jaundice, hepatitis, enlargement of the liver and spleen, gallstones, arthritis, acne, boils, psoriasis, dry eczema and other skin diseases, conjunctivitis, fevers, cancer, tumors, constipation, arthritis, amoebic and bacillary rheumatism, chronic dysentery, and yellow and foul-smelling diarrhea or leucorrhea. As well, these herbs clear a thick yellow coat on the tongue, particularly in the center or rear of the tongue, indicating they clear damp heat and food stagnation in the stomach and intestines (i.e. help digestion and elimination).
The California natives used Oregon grape for all chronic degenerative diseases, especially cancer and arthritis. A related variety of this species, Yerba de la Sangre (“herb of the blood”) has similar properties and was used by the Spanish-American tradition as a blood purifier, specifically for syphilis, and as a mild diuretic laxative. Ayurveda uses barberry (both Berberis aristata and B. vulgaris; tree turmeric) primarily to detoxify the liver along with all its other berberine effects of treating cancer, infectious yeast, and hypoglycemia.
Phellodendron bark (Phellodendron chinense, P. amurense; huang bai; Amur cork-tree; Rutaceae family) also has a cold energy and bitter flavor but affects the Kidneys, Bladder, and Large Intestine. In other words, it directs Qi downward. It also has anti-inflammatory, antipyretic, cholagogue, and antibacterial properties, and lowers blood sugar. It treats inflammation, yellow diarrhea or dysentery, hemorrhoids, and jaundice along with infections and yellow discharges form the anus, vagina, or penis, and red, swollen, and painful legs, knees, and feet. Topically, it is used for damp skin sores and lesions like psoriasis and eczema.
(Avoid using barberry/Oregon grape during pregnancy since it stimulates the uterus; don’t use phellodendron if there’s coldness symptoms such as no thirst, clear, copious, runny, and frequent discharges, excretions, secretions, and urination, cold extremities, pale face, lips and nails, lack of sweating, diarrhea or loose stools, poor appetite, or a weak stomach.)
So far so good in terms of using barberry/Oregon grape as a substitute for phellodendron. Now phellodendron has a unique property for which it is hard to substitute – it clears Heat associated with deficiency, which the Chinese call “Kidney Fire” (a heat that arises from progressed Yin Deficiency) with symptoms of night sweats, afternoon or tidal fever and sweating, and seminal emissions, which can lead to migraines and hypertension among other conditions. Deficient Heat arises much like your engine overheating from lack of oil or fluids. Similarly in the body, when there is a deficiency of cooling and moistening fluids (Yin), the organs can “overheat,” which causes Heat to rise up in the body (as heat tends to do in general), leading to the above symptoms.
While barberry and Oregon grape are milder bitter barberine herbs than their stronger buddies such as goldenseal, they do not clear Kidney Fire. However barberry does have a helpful property that can assist in this function. In Culpeper’s Medicine, A Practice of Western Holistic Medicine, by Graeme Tobyn (published by Element, 1997, p 206), it is stated that barberry is moistening and slightly cooling. Herbs that are cool and moist don’t necessarily tonify Yin but they can protect it and clear some Fire, too. Oregon grape root is slightly bitter, very unlike the strongly bitter of goldenseal and coptis, but not particularly moistening. I once tasted some fresh phellodendron and along with the slightly bitter flavor, it also had a moistening quality.
And yet, we also want to pay attention to the impact of phellodendron on the kidneys and urinary bladder as neither barberry nor Oregon grape has this influence. While they do treat very similar conditions in the lower part of the body, neither impact the Kidney with its Fire symptoms of night sweats, afternoon fever, or seminal emissions due to deficient Yin. So how do we adjust for this function?
How about combining marshmallow root with barberry/Oregon grape to get a closer substitution for phellodendron? Here’s why.
Marshmallow root (Althea officinalis; Malvaceae family) has a cool energy and sweet and mildly bitter flavors and affects the Small and Large Intestines, Lungs, Stomach, Kidneys, and Bladder! It is cool and moistening, tonifies Yin, cools the blood and has nutritive tonic, alterative, diuretic, demulcent, emollient, lithotriptic, anti-inflammatory, vulnerary, laxative, expectorant, and antispasmodic properties.
Although marshmallow doesn’t contain berberine, it is a wonderful anti-inflammatory herb that treats among other conditions, infections or inflammations of the stomach, intestines, urinary bladder, or kidneys. A wonderful demulcent that lubricates the body and protects it against irritation and dryness, it is a Yin tonic useful for wasting and thirsting diseases such as tuberculosis and diabetes. It also settles acid indigestion, soothes dry cough, colitis and ulcers, lung inflammation, sore and irritated joints, gastritis, colitis, ulcers and the urinary system, irritations associated with diarrhea and dysentery, kidney and bladder inflammations, difficult or painful urination and kidney stones or gravel while stopping any associated bleeding. Applied topically it treats skin conditions, inflammations, and infections such as wounds, burns, boils, ulcers, abscesses, bruises, gangrene and blood poisoning.
This sounds like marshmallow not only has a similar impact to barberry and Oregon grape but also has phellodendron’s special action of clearing Kidney Fire. That makes it a great adjunct for the action of berberine-containing herbs in general. For some people, the direct substitution of barberry or Oregon grape will work perfectly in place of phellodendron, but if there are any deficient heat signs, then it is best combined with marshmallow to have a more similar effect.