Oregon Grape – A Food Forest Plant
by Elise Krohn, Traditional Plants Program Director
Coast Salish People have long gathered foods from the forest in ways that steward the life and interdependence already present. Sustainable harvest techniques and management practices can promote the growth of wild greens, berries, nuts, and other types of foods. These practices are echoed around the world, and demonstration forests, including the Beacon Hill Forest in Seattle, model how people can both receive the gifts of the land and give back to the land.
We are featuring Oregon grape as a food forest plant along the nature trail. Beautiful yellow flowers are already budding and will develop into tart, edible berries. The leaves, bark, and roots also provide medicine and natural dye materials. Oregon grape is easy to grow and is available at many local plant nurseries.
Identifying Oregon Grape: There are two species of Oregon grape in our region – tall Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolia) grows to 8 feet tall, and dwarf or dull Oregon grape (Mahonia 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 glossy deep green on top and silvery beneath. Tall Oregon grape has five to seven leaflets per leaf, while dull Oregon grape has nine to 19 leaflets. The root, rhizome bark, and stem bark of both types of plants have a brilliant yellow pigment. Yellow flowers have six petals and are arranged in clusters.
Where it Grows: Oregon grape is commonly planted in city landscapes, parks, and along roadsides because it is both hearty and beautiful. Dwarf Oregon grape prefers shady forested areas and 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.
Eating Oregon Grape: Look for ripe Oregon grape berries in mid to late summer. They are REALLY tart – the kind of tart that makes your face pucker. But, when mixed with sweetener, they are delicious. The taste is earthy and rich with undertones of cherry, raspberry, and lemon.
Oregon grape berries are a traditional food for Northwest Native People and have long been mixed with sweeter berries like salal to make nutrient-dense cakes called pemmican. A few years ago, two hikers 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. The hikers came back in fine shape. Oregon grape berries are important food for birds and other animals.
Oregon Grape Medicine: Oregon grape is valued in herbal medicine for many things including fighting infections, promoting digestion, and stimulating liver function. The bright yellow bark or root are used both externally and internally for bacterial infections. For wounds, you can 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 and then secure it on the wound. You can also power the dried bark or root and sprinkle it directly on wounds.
The bitterness of Oregon grape is valuable in itself. As bitter compounds touch the 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 leads to better and more efficient digestion. 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 mild laxative.
Oregon Grape Dye: The bright yellow bark and root of Oregon grape bark is used to make a beautiful yellow dye. Coast Salish People have traditionally used it to color basketry materials and wool. The berries can also be used to make a blue dye. We will be experimenting with making Oregon grape dyes this winter, and will complete lessons on the plant this spring. Stay tuned, or come see us on the trail March 11th to learn more!
For more information on how to use Oregon grape for food or medicine, visit http://wildfoodsandmedicines.com/oregon-grape/.
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Moore, Michael. Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West. Red Crane Books, 1993.
Pojar and Mackinnon. Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Lone Pine, 1993.