Scientific name: (Mahonia) Berberis aquifolium
Plant family: Berberidaceae-Barberry Family
Description: This upright shrub grows anywhere from 2-10ft tall. Its shiny, pinnately compound leaves resemble holly because they are prickly and leathery. They are usually green but vary in color from red to copper to yellow-green. The hermaphrodite yellow flower is the Oregon State flower. The blue berries form bunches and are pleasantly sour.
Habitat: Oregon grape is shade tolerant and thrives in mixed coniferous woods. It is common in urban landscaping because it is a hardy evergreen.
Range: Oregon grape grows west along the North American coast from British Columbia to northern California and east to Idaho. It has been naturalized in other states and in countries around the world.
Historical and Contemporary Uses
Oregon grape is an important food source for Native American tribes throughout the Pacific Northwest coastal region. Berries are eaten raw or dried into cakes for storage or trade. Often Oregon grape is mixed with salal to dilute the berry’s sour taste. Many non-native people collect Oregon grape to make preserves or other foods. The fruit has a small amount of flesh for all the seeds. The flowers and young copper colored leaves are also eaten raw.
The medicinal qualities of Oregon grape are highly valued. Mountain Rose Herbs, a national retail and wholesale distributor of medicinal plant material, sells more Oregon grape root than any other herb. Tinctures made from the root or tea made from the leaves or stem can be used as bitter tonics which stimulate digestion. Berberis aquifolium is also said to be an anti-bacterial as well as a decongestant. Native tribes used the root and leaves for loss of appetite and debility.The berries are a mild laxative.4 The root can be used to make a yellow dye and the berries to make a purple-blue dye.