Berberis (or Mahonia) aquafolium (B. repens or nervosa species also used), a.k.a. Oregon Mountain Grape, Holly-leaved Barberry
Oregon grape earned its name from pioneers who harvested the plant along the Oregon trail. These hardy travelers used this herb as both medicine and food. In gratitude for the service rendered by this plant, Oregon declared it our state flower. This distinction is celebrated by herbalists who still rely on constituents lying under the surface of its bark for healing purposes.
Oregon Grape is a natural antibiotic with growing popularity. It produces the same powerful alkaloid, berberine, which give other herbal antibiotics such as goldenseal and goldenthread their yellowish color. Other plants in Oregon Grape’s family, Berberidaceae, have smaller amounts of berberine in their stems. Scratching a tiny patch of this shrub’s bark aside reveals a golden treasure trove of medicine. Berberine penetrates the entire plant from its flowers to its roots. This bitter chemical is the main reason that Oregon Grape tops the list of most popular herbs in the natural healer’s cupboard.
Medicinal Properties of Oregon Grape
antibiotic, antiseptic, antiamoebocidic, anti-inflammatory
Conditions Best Helped by Oregon Grape
As an amoebocide, Oregon Grape makes a great traveling companion. Disease vectoring amoebas live in water and can cause dysentery or skin rashes. The berberine alkaloids act on our cell’s DNA to prevent amoebas from take hold in the body. This herb may be taken effectively in a variety of forms: tinctures, glycerites, capsules, powder, oil, and in salves. Skin conditions such as acne, eczema, psoriasis and allergic rashes are soothed by Oregon grape’s attention. The berberine slows abnormal cell growth in the skin and reduces inflammation, which, in turn, relieves itching. Oregon grape also helps maintain healthy liver function. The skin often shows signs of a stressed liver by exhibiting yellowing or unhealthy growth. Both topical or internal treatment with this herb is appropriate.
Diarrhea can be treated with Oregon grape. Many times this is a symptom of a bacterial infection which is this herb’s specialty. Even E. coli infections are no match for several doses of Oregon grape. Add a dropper or two of the tincture to a glass of water for quick results.
Toothaches are not to be trifled with. An infected tooth or gum line can turn toxic in a shockingly short amount of time. Herbal medicine is not a substitution for proper dental care, but when a toothache shows up after your dentist’s office hours, Oregon grape is an excellent way to keep the infection at bay. Rub Oregon grape powder directly on the gum to reduce painful swelling and stave off a more serious bacterial infection.
Oregon Grape is perfect for treating wounds by keeping the area free from infection and swelling. Diluted tincture can be dabbed on a wound after it’s been cleaned. Infected eye conditions such as conjuntivitis or sties can be treated by topically applying a diluted and thoroughly strained tea to the area. Salve made with Oregon grape oil is a great addition to every family’s first aid kit. Some parents prefer to add Oregon grape tincture and calendula tincture diluted with water in a small bottle with a mister top to spray on scraped knees and elbows.
Serious infections of the lungs and the sinuses are no match for consistent care with Oregon Grape. This herb is used to deal with viral infections so they don’t develop into more deadly bacterial infections. The other properties that ease inflammation and pain make Oregon Grape the first line of defense against respiratory infections as serious as mononucleosis.
List of Oregon Grape’s Medicinal Actions
Astringent, antibiotic, amoebocide, anti-inflammatory, alterative, vulnerary and a bitter.
Medicinal Processing for Oregon Grape
Oregon grape is an excellent herb to keep on hand. The tincture does best with a lower alcohol content than other herbs require. The berberine extracts easily with both alcohol and water. Herbalists who prefer to use wine instead of heavier alcohols like vodka or whiskey can rely on Oregon grape to produce a potent product after a few months of soaking the root. Typically though, a solution of whiskey, brandy or vodka with a little water and spoonful of sugar or glycerine is all that is required to maximize the value of an effective Oregon grape tincture. Herbalists working with everclear should cover their herb with a solution that has 50-60 percent water in it.
Drying Oregon grape root takes no more that 24 hours. Be sure to chip the root before drying or it will be very hard to cut once the moisture is gone. Keep your final product away from sunlight so the berberine doesn’t degrade. Powdering this herb requires herb grinders specifically designed for roots. These may be found on web sites dedicated to Asian medicine.
Tea made from this plant is very bitter and not for delicate palates. A tea works great for soaking infected wounds however bitter the taste.
Oregon grape glycerite or syrup may be brewed on the stove or in the slow cooker. Dried plant is usually used in this process. Heat releases the medicinal values.
Gardening and Gathering Oregon Grape
Oregon grape is a hardy low growing shrub depending the area. It does best in fertile soils with partial sun. It can be found growing in varied conditions in the wild. Even deep shade with heavy clay soil can provide a growing medium for Oregon grape. The yellow-colored medicinal berberine that lies just below the surface (as shown in the photo to the right) is diminished in the pampered setting of the garden. The extra water and loamy soil does, however, make for sweeter berries.
Gardeners in rural settings appreciate this plant’s resistance to deer as well as disease. When grown in its native soil of Northern America, the shrub can bear all kinds of conditions. It can grow in zones 4-9 with an equally wide soil pH range. The new foliage may be a deep red in the fall and winter, but it turns deep green in the spring.
This plant provides visual winter interest and offers food for wildlife. The flowers bloom early, which offers food for native hummingbirds and bees. The berries remain on the bush in winter as a fruit source from hungry animals in the lean months.
Quick ID tips
Appearance: Oregon grape grows to 2–6 feet tall. It has leathery leaves with sharp barbs at its edges like a holly. The leaves are compound with several leaflets per leaf stem. The twigs have a thick, corky look. The flowers, which appear in large clusters, are bright yellow.
Taste: The inner bark has a tart taste that turns extremely bitter in the mouth. The berries range from sweet to tart depending on how much water the plant has received.
Odor: The inner bark has a woody scent. The berries smell fruity. The flowers have little scent at all.
Harvesting Oregon Grape
The berries may be frozen or dried for later use. The berries can have as many as 9 seeds per berry which is why Oregon grape makes a better jelly than a jam. When fermented with honey into a melomel or mead, they make a tasty wine with gentle medicinal qualities.
Do not bother harvesting Oregon Grape leaves. These have little to no medicinal value.
If using the stems of Oregon grape, be sure your plant shows the orange/yellow berberine content by scratching the outer bark away. Some stems are low in medicinal value. This is why herbalists rely on the roots instead.
Roots may be the trickiest of the medicine to harvest, but they contain the most berberine of the plant. Dig up the plant in the fall or winter. This means killing the plant, so don’t collect the roots unless other options aren’t available. I dug out part of a neighbor’s Oregon Grape hedge that had become overgrown. She appreciated the help and I appreciated the free medicine. These roots store well so I had medicine for years.
Clean the roots thoroughly. While they are still fresh, use a metal scouring sponge and a paring knife to remove the outer bark. The bright orange inner bark is our goal. Use the paring knife to shave off the inner bark for processing. If your Oregon Grape hasn’t been watered much, it will have berberine in the inner root as well. This alkaloid is easy to see so cut the root into serviceable chips for later use as well.
Using Oregon Grape to Care for Animals
Oregon grape oil is wonderful to rub on skin that is dry and scaly. We have a cat with a sever flea allergy who responds quickly to Oregon grape oil. If he licks off the oil, it introduces the antibiotic and anti-inflammatory actions to his system internally.
The berries of Oregon grape can be given either fresh or dried to birds or mammals with vegetarian diets. The bitterness of the berry varies depending on how much water the plant has absorbed, so don’t be surprised if your rabbit or hamster picks around the fruit you are offering. Larger grazers like goats or sheep will not be as picky when the berries are mixed with their grains.
Oregon grape is the first choice for fortifying an animal’s resistance to bacterial infections. Topical treatment for wounds of Oregon grape salve mixed with yarrow, comfrey and calendula has saved many wounds from turning septic. Adding a few droppers of Oregon Grape tincture to a larger animal’s water also stimulates digestion. This helps the animal get the most nutrition from his or her food. Remember that a little goes a long way.
Household Formulas and Non-Medicinal Uses of Oregon Grape
Oregon grape makes a wonderful jelly. The fruit is very tart so do not skimp on the sugar. If you are short on Oregon grape berries, other fruit may be added.
Try brewing Oregon grape berry wine or throw some berries into a pie or cobbler. They make a tasty substitute for blackberries in most recipes. Remember to taste test your berries first to get an idea of how tart the batch you have is. This fruit varies in flavor from harvest to harvest.
Cautions for Oregon Grape
Oregon grape is counter indicated for people with Raynaud’s disease as it may produce numbness or tingling sensations with high doses.
Some people report a slightly sedative effect of Oregon grape. For those already using anti-anxiety drugs, Oregon grape is not recommended.
Large amounts of this herb is not recommended (or required) as the tannins can cause stomach upset.
Pregnant or nursing women should only use Oregon grape under the advise of a qualified health specialist.
Discontinue use of Oregon Grape if allergic reactions occur.
For more information see our History, Folklore, Myth and Magic page on Oregon Grape.