Our modern palate oscillates between the addictive flavors of salty and sweet, but we have lost an essential ingredient to optimal health: bitter plants. They are so rare in our diet that many people cannot name anything with bitterness except coffee. Historically, humans valued bitters for their digestive stimulating and medicinal properties. Oregon grape is a quintessential bitter plant that has the capacity to cleanse, clarify and enliven body and spirit.
Lame name: Mahonia spp. Oregon grape is in the barberry or Berberidaceae family
Identifying Oregon Grape: We have two species of Oregon grape in our region – tall Oregon grape (M. aquifolia) grows to 8 feet tall and dwarf or dull Oregon grape (M. nervosa) grows just a few feet tall. Both are erect stiff branched shrubs with compound leaves that resemble holly in leathery appearance and prickliness. The leaves are a glossy deep green on top and silvery beneath. Tall Oregon grape has 5-7 leaflets per leaf while dull Oregon grape (it’s anything but dull) has 9-19 leaflets. Both plants have rhizomous roots with a brilliant yellow pigment in the inner bark. Bright yellow flowers have 6 petals and are arranged in clusters. Appropriately – Oregon grape is Oregon’s state flower.
Where it Grows: Oregon grapes are northwest perennials that are prized for their beauty and heartiness. They are commonly planted in city landscapes, parks and along roadsides. Dwarf Oregon grape prefers shady areas – often second story Douglas fir forest. It forms a ground cover. Tall Oregon grape prefers sunnier locations in low to middle elevations. It grows in clusters in dry fields and forest margins.
When and How to Harvest: Deep blue berries are usually ripe from July to September. Tall Oregon grape berries are much more prolific and grow on stems that are easy to remove. I pick them as a cluster then process individual berries at home.
As a beginning herbalist I was instructed to dig up dwarf Oregon grape rhizomes to harvest the potent medicinal yellow bark. This was a tedious process since I had to dig the entire plant, wash the roots, and then carefully scrape the outer bark with a knife so that all of the yellow bark was removed from the inner white root. I felt guilty killing the plant. Years later, Skokomish elder Bruce Miller showed me how to peel the bark off the large stems of tall Oregon grape. He took me to a plant that he had been harvesting from for over 30 years and it did not look damaged by the taking! I enthusiastically cut a few 8-foot stems and easily stripped them – no digging or washing necessary. Out of curiosity, I tested the berberine content (an alkaloid that has potent medicinal properties) on both the dwarf Oregon grape root and the tall Oregon grape stem bark with thin layer chromatography. The stem was slightly higher in berberine. Needless to say, I have never gone back to digging the roots!
Strip the bark with a sharp knife when it is fresh. As it dries it gets surprisingly tough to scrape. If you are digging the rhizomes and roots, wash to remove dirt, then strip larger ones with a knife. Entire smaller roots can be cut with pruning sheers or scissors. Dry in baskets or paper bags. They will last 1-2 years.
Eating Oregon Grape Berries
Full disclosure here… Oregon grape berries are REALLY tart – the kind of tart that makes your face twist and your eyebrows lift beyond known measure. My daughter loves them and begs us to eat a few so we can make a “sour face.” But, when mixed with sweetener, they are really delicious. In the same way that fine wine carries complex flavors, Oregon grape is earthy and rich with undertones of cherry, raspberry and lemon. I have a girlfriend who won first place at the Oregon State Fair for her Oregon grape jelly! It really is worth the effort.
Oregon Grape Jelly
This is a standard jelly recipe with liquid pectin. I have made it 3 years in a row and the recipe has held up consistently. Make sure to harvest the berries when they are deep blue. They will still be tart, but less so than unripe berries.
- Measure 6 cups of cleaned, rinsed Oregon grape berries
- Place berries in a cooking pot with 2 cups of water
- Bring to a boil, then turn down and simmer for 15 minutes. Use a large spoon to mash the berries against the side of the pot so the juice is released.
- Place a Foley food mill over another cooking pot. In 1 to 2 cup increments, turn the berries and juice through the food mill so that the seeds are separated. Remove the seeds from the mill before straining another batch.
- Once finished, measure your juice/pulp. It should yield about 3 cups. If you have less you can add a little water to bring your volume to 3 cups.
- Place a pot on the stovetop, add the juice, 1 ounce of pectin (about ½ of a liquid package) and the juice of ½ lemon. Stir well and then turn onto high heat, stirring consistently.
- Once the mixture is boiling, rapidly add 3 cups of sugar, return to a rolling boil and boil for exactly 1 minute. Remove from the burner.
- Place the jelly in clean hot canning jars, wipe the top of the jars to remove any spillage, cover with lids, and can in a water bath for 10 minutes. If any lids do not seal, refrigerate the jar of jelly and use within three weeks.
I tried this recipe for the first time this year and I like it better than the high sugar jelly. I used Pomona’s Universal Pectin. The lavender was a last-minute inspiration since I spied it drying near by – the flavors compliment each other well! Toast with Oregon grape jelly and an egg has been my daughter Lucy’s “out of this world breakfast.”
- Measure 8 cups of clean, rinsed Oregon grape berries.
- Place berries in a cooking pot with 2 cups of water.
- Bring to a boil, turn down and simmer for 15 minutes as described above.
- Process berries and juice through a Foley Food Mill as described above.
- Measure 4 cups of the juice/pulp.
- Place the juice in a cooking pot, stir in 2 teaspoon of calcium water (included in Pomona’s Pectin, and 2 tablespoons of fresh or dried lavender.
- Measure 2 cups of honey and stir in 2 teaspoons of pectin.
- Bring the juice to a boil.
- Add the honey/pectin and stir vigorously for 1-2 minutes until the mixture returns to a boil. Remove from heat.
- Fill canning jars, seal and can for 10 minutes as described above.
Oregon grape berries are a traditional food for Northwest Native People and were often mixed with other sweeter berries like salal and made into pemmican cakes. A few years ago I heard about 2 hikers who got lost in the woods for over a week. The only edible food they knew was Oregon grape berries and they ate them in large quantities. They came back in fine shape. Hopefully you, dear reader, will have a greater variety of foods in your knowledge basket when you brave the wild.
Oregon Grape Medicine
Oregon grape has a long history of use. Native people have valued it as a medicine wherever it grows. Many tribes in the Pacific Northwest have used it as a blood tonic, an antimicrobial, a laxative, and to ease stomach irritability.
Oregon grape has many complex compounds but the one that herbalists focus on the most is a bright yellow alkaloid called berberine. Berberine is a strong antimicrobial and liver stimulant that is found in other plants including barberry, coptis, greater celandine and goldenseal. Although these plants are sometimes used interchangeably, remember that each plant is more than the sum of its parts. Oregon grape has similar properties to the endangered and overused goldenseal plant, but there are important therapeutic differences, including the fact that Oregon grape is not as tightening to inflamed tissue.
Oregon grape can be used both externally and internally to fight bacterial infections. For wounds, you can either make a strong tea and soak the wound in it, or you can saturate a dry sterile bandage or very clean cloth in the tea, then secure it on the wound. You can also power the dried root and sprinkle it directly on wounds. I have heard several herbalists report that they used Oregon grape successfully for intestinal infections. It is specific against salmonella, shigellosis and amebic dysentery. I have successfully used it on clients with upset stomach due to something they ate that “seemed a little off.”
The bitterness of Oregon grape is valuable in itself. As bitter compounds touch your taste buds on your tongue they send messages to your brain – causing an increase in many digestive secretions including saliva, hydrochloric acid, pepsinogen and hormones that stimulate the gall bladder and pancreas. This, of course, leads to better and more efficient digestion down the digestive tract. Try Oregon grape tea or tincture before meals as a bitter tonic to prevent indigestion. Because it stimulates digestive juices, it also acts as a laxative.
Oregon grape stimulates liver function. My esteemed herbal teacher, Michael Moore, sought out physiological or constitutional patterns in individuals, then used plants to bring them back into a state of balance. Many Americans have a pattern of liver deficiency. The liver is responsible for many functions including:
- breaking down metabolites and toxins
- producing bile, which helps break down fats and proteins, and acts as a laxative.
- Working with other organs to balance blood sugar
- making high quality building blocks to support the skin and other tissue
Here is the common picture of some of the symptoms that might emerge when a person’s liver is not functioning optimally: dry and cracked skin with slow healing wounds, gum problems and dry mouth, regular indigestion and perhaps constipation, a white or yellow coated tongue with bad breath in the a.m., difficulty digesting fats and proteins, rapid shifts in blood sugar levels and a preference for sweets and light foods or environmental allergies. If this picture sounds familiar, Oregon grape may be a plant for you!
Preparation and dosage:
Tea: Use about 2 teaspoons of dried cut bark/root or 1 teaspoon of the powder per cup of boiling water. Place the herb and water in a pot, bring to a boil, turn down, cover with a lid and simmer for 15 minutes. Stain. Drink ½ cup 2-3 times a day. If you are using fresh bark, use 1 tablespoon of per cup and boil 15 minutes.
Alcohol Tincture: Because Oregon grape tastes so bitter many people prefer to take it as a tincture. Tinctures are easy to use and will last for 7-9 years. They are not appropriate for people with alcohol issues. To make tincture, finely chop bark/roots, then weigh them with a scale. For every 1 part herb by weight, use 2 parts alcohol by volume (you can use 80-100 proof vodka or brandy). For example, if you have 3 ounces of herb, you will use 6 ounces of alcohol. Place the Oregon grape and alcohol in a glass mason jar and cover with a tight fitting lid. Let sit for at least 2 weeks, stirring occasionally, then strain with muslin cloth. Make sure to squeeze out as much liquid as you can. Compost the herb. Place the tincture in a glass bottle for storage. Amber dropper bottles work well because you can easily determine a drop dose. The dosage is 30-45 drops 2-3 times a day.
Dry herb tincture can be made by mixing 1 part dried herb by weight with 5 parts alcohol by volume. Follow directions as above.
Contraindications: Oregon grape should not be used for people with liver excess symptoms including a pointed, red tipped tongue, excess salivation and frequent loose stools.
The botanist David Douglas thought the plant so lovely that it was brought back to Europe at the time of the first explorers and was incorporated into English gardens as a shady ground cover. The roots are boiled to make a brilliant yellow dye that is traditionally used to color basketry materials and wool. The berries are important food for birds and other animals.
Oregon grape is bold and brazen. To some, the plant might seem harsh – its’ sharpness and bitter taste cutting through a sense of comfort. This is part of the medicine. Oregon grape has the ability to remove stagnation, cleanse, clarify. It supports organs of digestion and elimination, but it also supports the liver’s ability to rebuild good structure. When we are clear of obstacles, we move toward our full potential with flexibility and ease.
Moerman, Daniel E. Native American Ethnobotany. Timber Press, 1986.
Moore, Michael. Talk on Mahonia in Chiricawa Mts, AZ. May 2, 1995.
Moore, Michael. Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West. Red Crane Books, 1993.
Netishen, Joyce. Lecture on the Liver and Gallbladder. The Spirit of Plants. September, 2004
Pojar and Mackinnon. Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Lone Pine, 1993.