Learn how to grow and forage Oregon Grape (Mahonia aquifolium) — one of nature’s most useful medicinal plants! Not only are the roots of the Oregon state flower prized for their therapeutic potential, but the tart, tannic berries are edible too!
Rarely does nature offer us plants that are so well suited to a variety of conditions. From the edges of dense sub-alpine woods to suburban landscapes to municipal planting strips, Oregon grape (sometimes also referred to as Oregon holly or Mahonia) delivers showy color, shine, and texture. And — it even offers food and medicine.
How to Grow Oregon Grape
The Oregon state flower, Mahonia aquifolium, makes excellent ornamental shrubbery, offering four seasons of visual interest. It is tolerant of full shade and full sun (though intense heat and sunlight such as that reflected off solid surfaces may lead to leaf scorching), but it thrives in dappled, or partial shade. Oregon grape prefers hummus rich soils that are well drained and slightly acidic. It performs well in the same conditions that rhododendrons, azaleas, salal, huckleberry and blueberries so — and can often be found growing along side these plants in native areas.
Oregon grapes possess holly-like foliage, that emerges as new growth in shades of crimson, matures into a bold emerald green and blushes a burgundy bronze come fall and winter. Which is to say that this “evergreen” is hardly just green. During the spring, bright yellow blossoms attract pollinators to the garden. Mid to late summer, the grape shaped fruits mature to a dark blue with a noticeable “microbial “bloom” and are ripe when yield they slightly to gentle pressure. As a landscape shrub, Oregon grape provides an added value to the landscape, besides its inherent beauty. And that value is security. Placed underneath private but access providing windows, the spiny leaves are sure to deter even the most intrepid intruders.
Low growing, trailing varieties of Oregon grape (Mahonia repens) are also observed in native landscapes.
Interested in planting Oregon grape in your landscape? Check out Strictly Medicinal Seeds for plant availability.
Random Fact: Oregon Grape became the Oregon state flower in 1892.
Forage for Oregon Grape
Oregon Grape is perhaps one of the most distinctive plants in the wild and cultivated landscape. It is often found at the edges of forested areas in wild areas, and is relatively prolific in the sub-mountain regions of the Pacific Northwest. Though, due to its adaptable nature I have found it in riparian areas near sea level and it can even thrive in full sun conditions.
There are several defining characteristics that make foraging for Oregon grape relatively easy.
- pinnate holly-like leaves with sharp points appearing is shades of green, burgundy and bronze
- clusters of bright yellow, nine-sepaled flowers appear on terminal racemes in spring
- dark purple-blue small grape shaped berries ripen in late summer
- inner bark of the stems and roots is a bright, sulfer-y yellow
The anitimicrobial and hepatic medicinal constituents are stored in the yellow roots, and to lesser extent, the inner bark of the lower branches of Oregon grape. Although the Oregon state flower is prolific west of the Cascades, it is quite sparse east of this area. The United Plant Savers has designated it into “watch” status – meaning that conservation efforts should be observed to prevent over harvesting.
When you forage Oregon Grape for the medicinal parts, gently unearth the roots of a large established plant and trim a just enough roots back to meet your needs. Alternately, the lower branches of the Oregon grapes can also be harvested for medicinal purposes.
To prepare the roots and stems for herbal medicine making I peel away the outer bark then snip into small chunks for immediate tincturing or to dry from storage or oil based infusions.
Oregon Grape Recipes
I spent most of my youth and early adult years under the assumption the the pretty dark berries of Oregon were poisonous. That is not the case. However, in their raw, unaltered form they are anything but tasty, and virtually unpalatable! But just as the ugly duckling transformed to a beautiful swan — with a little finesse the tart, tannic, bitter Oregon grape berries can become absolutely delicious.
Try these Oregon Grape recipes with your foraged berries!
Oregon Grape & Lemon Curd
This Oregon grape and lemon curd is just absurd in its deliciousness. The unctuous rich quality of the curd balances the less palatable aspect of the berries to deliver a wild , musky dream of a curd. I smeared this between layer of rose flavored sponge for my wedding cake (yeah, I made my own y’all).
Oregon Grape Tart
This Oregon grape tart from Gather is simply a thing of sheer, simple beauty. And I have it on good authority that all things that Jennifer and Danielle make are worthy of royalty.
Oregon Grape Jelly
Even a simple Oregon grape jelly, courtesy of Joybilee Farm seems to be a perfect way to enjoy this recalcitrant berry.
Latin Name: Mahonia aquifolium
Other Common names: Oregon holly, hollyleafed barberry, California barberry, Rocky Mountain grape.
To learn more about the medicinal benefits of Oregon grape and 49 other common medicinal plant, consider pre-ordering my book The Backyard Herbal Apothecary.
I grew up in Oregon and 8 years ago I moved to Arizona. I know the Oregon Grape very well, never used it medicinally back in Oregon, but it is not here in Arizona, although there is the Creeping Oregon Grape. I am trying to learn more about foraging for medicinal plants in the desert regions, but there isn’t a lot of information on it. Do you have any good books to recommend on the subject or know of someone who is knowledgeable about medicinal plants in the desert? I love your website by the way!! Lots of good information.
I found a book called “Indian Uses of Desert Plants” by James W Cornett that identifies many of the Arizona desert plants I am unfamiliar with. It’s a good starting point.
We live in the “Forgotten Corner” (northeast Washington) and it’s growing all over our property. Jim has made wine, jelly and syrup out of it. Will have to try to use it as a medicinal. Thanks for the information, JoAnn
NE Washington is gorgeous, rugged country!
My late partner often used Oregon grape bark as medicine and I’ll be looking further into what it can do as well as making the jelly. There are plenty of healthy unsprayed Oregon grape patches on my property and just back of it in the bush.