Witches Sweets: Barberry Syrup Cakes

These are my very, very last-minute treats for Samhain celebrations. Mercury retrograde wreaked havoc on my other recipes –  all felled by some sort of culinary disaster. So a little ingenuity was called for – i.e. this simple sponge which takes all of 3 minutes in the microwave. It turns out similar to a steamed pudding drenched in a tart & wickedly delicious Barberry Syrup. And if you’ve got some Barberry bushes nearby (and it’s very likely you do) this little dessert can be concocted in no time at all. 

Magically barberry is a protective plant with a long association with Samhain. Carrying a sprig this night or placing it over your front door and windows helped to ward off any lurking ghouls or malevolent spirits.  You could also place a barberry branch in your path because no evil could cross it. One of its many names is Holy Thorn (apparently it was the crown of thorns worn by Jesus) In 18th century England the Church advised young children to carry a spring on All Hallows Night as it reputedly terrified witches. Which is interesting as another of barberry’s folkloric names is Witches Sweets!

The barberry is plentiful this time of the year – although its long culinary and medicinal uses are forgotten by most. Chock full of vitamin C, its plump tiny jewel-like berries taste like mini cranberries and have been used medicinally all over the world from Ancient Egypt to Asia to the Americas. Barberry Syrup was used in traditional European medicine for fever, infections, cold, and flu. In France, barberries were used in invigorating tonic syrups. 

Barberries contain berberine, a naturally occurring alkaloid with many beneficial uses from soothing inflammation, easing arthritis, balancing blood pressure, protecting the liver, supporting the digestive tract and boosting the immune system. A study published in the journal Pharmacological Research compared barberry to 109 other non-Berberis species. They found barberry to be the best overall antioxidant.

I use barberries in fruitcake, cookies and jam, sprinkled them on herb-infused rice and grain dishes, and extract their many medicinal properties in herbal vinegar. The berries are very high in pectin and making jams and jellies from barberries (known as pipperages) is a very old English custom. According to an article in The New England Farmer in the early 1800s, “Barberry jelly, ruby clear, is the finest table jelly to serve with venison and other high-flavoured roasts, and epicures will have no other when they have once tried it.” There is also a famous French Marmalade called Confitures D’epine Vinette.

The Barberry Sweet Relish above (recipe in the Gather E-Cookery Book for Patrons) was inspired by my research into pickles which were for hundreds of years, far more fancy culinary affairs than they are today.  16th and 18th recipes include radish pods, artichokes, barberries, fennel, beetroot, red currants, melons and peaches, often done in wine vinegar.

Beeton’s Book of Household Management advises barberries can also be used as “ a dry sweetmeat, and in sugar-plums or comfits” or pickled with vinegar”. They were added to preserved fruits to add a tart flavour, and to make barberry sherbet, chutney and wine.  A traditional Russian candy called Barberis is made from the berries, and they are a favourite in Middle Eastern Cooking. One popular dish is Tancheen (golden saffron rice) studded with Zereshk( barberries) and often enriched with yogurt and herbs. Yum. 

There are over 500 kinds of Barberry bushes growing around the world. The most common forms of barberry bushes are the Common Barberry and the Japanese Barberry as both are used prolifically in landscape gardening across North America and Europe.  Berberis vulgaris or Common Barberry is native to central and southern Europe, Africa and Asia and grows berries in hanging clumps while the Japanese Barberry Berberis thunbergii berries grow either single or in pairs. I harvest the Japanese Barberry, as it grows abundantly throughout my neighbourhood as shrubbery and every year they yield thousands upon thousands of berries – all untouched. The Japanese Barberry is easily recognizable with its abundant thorns, the leaf margin is not serrated (it is smooth), its leaves turn to burgundy in the fall, then when they fall they leave a bare spiky branch glistening with berries.

In New England, it was introduced for hedgerow and other plantings back in the late 1800s and by 1910 it was recognized as a frequent garden escapee. I’ve never seen this shrub naturalized anywhere on Vancouver Island but in the northeast United States and Canada, it is considered a highly invasive shrub forming dense thickets throughout pastures and forests. NOTE:  If you’re harvesting from a “wild” Japanese Barberry please be aware they are a haven for ticks so don’t pick from these until mid-winter.

Berries can be gathered starting in the fall, through the winter and right into spring. The fruit stays on the bushes and doesn’t rot.  It only took me 15 minutes to gather what I needed for the syrup recipe – and more besides – which I’ll use for tonic elixirs, vinegar and dry some for use in teas and cooking.

But back to the recipe at hand. It’s growing late and the light fades! And I still have another recipe to post for Gather Patrons. So I know it’s probably too late to make these Witches Sweets for Samhain, but I offer them on this Hallowed Night nonetheless. But the barberries will be around for some time yet – plenty of time to try the recipe!  May you have a happy & festive Samhain!



  • 1/2 cup  Barberry Syrup (directions below)
  • 1/2 cup melted butter
  • 1/2 cup golden brown sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • ¾ cup plain flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 2 small lemons, zest and juice
  • 1-2 tbsp milk


  1. Grease a 1.2 litre/2 pint glass bowl (or suitable for the microwave). Set aside.
  2. Beat the butter, sugar, eggs, flour and baking powder together in a bowl, then mix in the eggs, baking powder and flour.
  3. Add the lemon juice and zest, add enough milk so that it holds as a firm dough, should not be not runny. 
  4. Spoon 3 tablespoons of the syrup into bottom of the greased bowl. Cover tightly and microwave on full power for 3-4 minutes (or until the sponge begins to shrink from the sides and is springy to the touch).
  5. Leave to stand for 5 minutes before turning out. Pour remaining syrup over the top. Enjoy. Lovely with ice-cream. 

Barberry Syrup


  • 4 cups barberries
  • 2 cups cold water
  • 1 orange rind, grated
  • 2 cups of sugar
  • Pinch of cardamom


  1. Place water, orange rind and sugar into a saucepan.
  2. Mix well and cook over medium heat for 5 minutes.
  3. Add the washed and stemmed ripe berries.
  4. Cook till the berries begin to pop and syrup begins to thicken (approx. 10 -15 minutes)
  5.  Strain off berries with a sieve. Allow to cool slightly before serving.


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Whether its through wildcrafting, plant medicine, kitchen witchery or seasonal celebrations, I believe we can enhance personal, community and planetary well-being by connecting with mother nature!

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