Wine from the Oregon Grape

Oregon Grape

The highlight for me of a recent Valentine’s Day Party was some wine made from the Oregon Grape.

There are at least two  very common varieties of this on the island. Both are named in the settler world after one Bernard McMahon, a friend of Jefferson. The most common in the forests is Mahonia repens, which is low to the ground and spreads out to protect its turf. Mahonia aquifolium or the holly grape, is tall and bushy.

And it can be quite prolific:  

Oregon Grape, aka Mahonia, aka Mountain Grape, aka Grape Holly, aka Tall Oregon Grape, aka Hollyleaf Barberry

Although the leaves look just like English Holly, Oregon Grape (Mahonia aquifolium) is really a barberry shrub. It grows seven to ten feet in height, & can be three to five feet wide. To limit its width, suckers can be removed as they appear, encouraging only the upward branches, creating very narrow upright specimens. If the species seems a bit big, there are smaller cultivars including “Compacta” & “Mayhan Strain” that are three by three feet or smaller. “Apollo” is a true dwarf that flowers heavily & makes an excellent evergreen groundcover under trees.
The dwarfs I’m fairly certain are always hybridized with the ground-creeping M. repens, either crossed in cultivation or even occurring naturally in the wild. A pure wild M. aquifolium is a very erect shrub, whereas specimens that grew from casual pollinization with M. repens will be more varied in form, being shorter, wider, clumpier, but only occasionally completely prostrate.
We have two specimens of M. aquifolium one planted under large evergreens in considerable shade, the other under the Paperbark Maple where it gets indirect sunlight at least. The above photo was snapped the day we brought one home & just before we planted it under the Paperbark Maple (it was not planted in front of that Camellia japonica the leaves of which can be seen behind it in the photo). It’s a June photo so it’s full of green berries that will not ripen until Autumn. I remember the day we bought this shrub, there were some very densely foliaged specimens we might have chosen instead, & the nurseryman seemed surprised we wanted this thin one, but after looking at scores of them offered by various nurseries,  this was the first one that said “Take me home!” We later added the bushier one farther along the cliff edge, because to fruit well, they need to be able to crosspollinate with other mahonias.
We’ve also two specimens of M. repens in shady dry ground not far distant from the aquifoliums, both a little farther down the tiny cliff. Their conditions are a bit harsh because a large holly tree & a fir tree suck the ground dry, & the shade is so deep even weeds don’t much grow on that slope. But if anythiung, the M .repens are doing even better, as they bloom first & better. All the four shrubs of the two species are doing just fine, though, whereas if they’d been in a sunny & well-watered location, they probably wouldn’t do as well.
Mahonias only fruit if they can pollinate with nearby specimens of its own species, or with a compatible species, & these two species do cross-pollinate at will.
Oregon Grape is the state flower of Oregon. M. aquifolium is native of the Pacific Northwest from northern California through Oregon, Washington & British Columbia. The genus name honors Irish-American pioneer nurseryman Bernard McMahon  (1775-1816), a pal of Thomas Jefferson who was a radical gardener for much longer than he was a president, & whose gardens persisting at Montecello to this day include much that was provided to Jefferson by McMahon.
The Philadelphia nurseryman became curator over the seeds & plants gathered in the west during the Lewis & Clark Expedition, & he was the author of the horiticultural classic The American Gardener’s Calendar (1806). Botanist Thomas Nuttall named the western group of shrubs mahonias in remembrance of McMahon within two years of the death of America’s first national nurseryman.
In the garden Oregon Grape is not at all fussy as to soil conditions. It grows in most any lighting condition from deep shade to full sun, though it definitely likes partial shade or dappled sunlight best. It gets redder in winter with more sun exposure, but has a better overall appearance year-round when provided with a bit of shade. With too much winter sunlight it will get spotty, ruining its bronzy coloration; ours being in deeper shade, they never get the winter spottiness, but instead have a bronzy winter cast to the green leaves that lasts until spring.
A first-rate hedgerow can be made from mahonia, for areas too shady to grow other hedgeable shrubs.  It can be cultivated from seeds sewn winter or spring, or by digging up suckers & babying them in pots for a while. They’ll also reproduce from autumn leaf-cuttings.
The fragrant flowers appear as early as January & last through May. In the most southerly part of its range into California, where it experiences fairly warm winters, it will bloom beginning in December. These flowers are  edible &  can be used raw in salads, or fried in tempura. The flowers can also be boiled to make a lemonade substitute.
Spring’s yellow blooms have turned into green berries by June. The berries darken to a beautiful dusty or frosted blue beginning in July, but will not really be ripe until autumn, when the blue-black berries on red stems amidst bronzy leaves place this lovely shrub at the height of its ornamental powers.
The fruit occurs in bunches & really do look like small grapes, the size of large black currants. They are quite tasty right off the bush despite being seedy & acidic. Cooked, sieved, & sweetened for jams is best. As with most acidic autumn berries, if they are harvested in winter after they have gone through a couple of frosts, they taste much better, as the cold breaks down the pectins & increases the percentage of fructose. All mahonia species have edible berries, but M. aquifolium is one of the best, & is the most heavily productive.
Unfortunately for us, the birds very much agree the grapes are tasty. We have many autumn & winter berries that the birds only eat sporadically because most cold-season berries are simply too tart to be a first choice of meal. But for the mahonia, as soon as a short cold spell sweetens them a bit, the birds get them all. One day the bush is full of berries, the next it has none! Wherever this is predictably going to happen, they can be picked the instant they turn black, & “frosted off” artificially in the freezer.
The First Peoples of Oregon, Washington & British Columbia made a bitter tea from the root as a general tonic to treat weariness, loss of apetite, venereal infections, digestive problems, or gargled for soar throat & bronchial infections. The fruit was used as a mild laxative. And a yellow dye was made from a substance taken from the underside of the bark, violet dye from the berries, & green dye from the leaves.
As a medicinal plant, Oregon Grape extract has been shown to be useful in treatment of skin disorders such as soriasis & fungal infection. Acting on reports of a Vancouver Island Salishan woman who successfully treated dermatitis with bark of the Oregon Grape, a 1992 dermatological study was conducted in Germany to assess the value of this folk-remedy & its known active ingredients, berbamine, oxycanthine, & berberine. The outcome of the study became notoriously exaggerated when filtered through the wild promises of herbal remedy manufacturers, but even so, the medical value of mahonia is worth taking seriously.

FROM 1898.


Berberis Aquifolium.—Oregon Grape.

Fig. 47. Leaves of Berberis aquifolium. Photo: Mahonia aquifolium 1. Preparations: Fluid Extract of Berberis Aquifolium Related entries: Berberis.—BarberryHydrastis (U. S. P.)—Hydrastis

The root of Berberis aquifolium, Pursh (Mahonia aquifolium, Paxton). Nat. Ord.—Berberidaceae. COMMON NAMES: Mountain grape, Oregon grape. ILLUSTRATIONS: Pursh, Vol. I, Plate iv; Botanical Register, 1425.

Botanical Source.—Berberis aquifolium is a shrug having stems about 6 feet high, erect, and of rapid growth. The leaves are alternate and consist of 3 or 4 pairs of leaflets, and an odd one. They are evergreen, coriaceous, bright and shining upon the upper surface, and very ornamental; hence, the shrub is frequent in cultivation, often under the improper name “holly.” The leaflets are smooth, ovate, from 2 to 3 inches long, and one-half as wide. They are acute, sessile, pinnately veined, and the margin is indented with from 15 to 30 repand spiny teeth. The lower pair of leaflets is from 1 to 2 inches distant from the base of the common petiole. The flowers are numerous, small, yellowish-green, and appear in early spring, borne in fascicled, terminal racemes. The calyx has 9 distinct sepals, colored like the petals and disposed in 2 rows, the outer of which consists. of 3 sepals (bracts?). The petals are 6, distinct, orbicular, and in rows of 3 each. The stamens are also 6, and opposite the petals; they have irritable filaments, and extrorse anthers, opening, each by 2 little valves, hinged at the top. The fruit, which is known as “Oregon grape,” is a cluster of purple berries, each containing an agreeably acid pulp, and from 3 to 9 seeds.

History.—This is a tall shrub, native of the western section of the United States. It grows from Colorado to the Pacific Ocean, and is especially abundant in Oregon and the northern part of California. Berberis aquifolium belongs to the section Mahonia of the genus Berberis, which section is considered by some botanists a distinct genus, The following synopsis of the difference between the two sub-genera is taken from “Berberidaceae ” (a pamphlet by C. G. and J. U. Lloyd, 1878):

“The Berberis proper has simple leaves clustering in the axis of a simple or 3-parted spine. The petals have two glands on the inside of each, at the base. The filaments have no teeth. Berries 2 to 3-seeded.

“Mahonia has oddly, pinnately, compound leaves, with no spine at the base, but with spiny-toothed leaflets. The petals are glandless. The stamens have a tooth on each side of the filament, near the top. Berries 3 to 9-seeded.”

The section “Mahonia” is represented in the western United States by six species, viz.: Berberis pinnata, Lag., a tall shrub with the general appearance of B. aquifolium, distinguished from it by the leaflets, which are glaucous underneath, and the lower pair approximate to the base of the petiole; Berberis repens, Lind., a small creeping plant, with leaves often ternate, and leaflets nearly orbicular, and which has been much confounded, and frequently described as Berberis aquifolium. Berberis nervosa, Pursh, a small erect shrub, with leaves often longer than the stem—it appears to be more generally distributed than the other species. The chief characteristics of this species are, the leaflets are three-veined from an oblique base, the common petiole is jointed “like a bamboo stem,” and the flowers are in slender racemes. The two other species, B. Fendleri and B. Fremonti, are of rare occurrence.

Berberis aquifolium and the other species long in use in domestic practice throughout the West, were brought into general notice a few years since by Parke, Davis & Co., of Detroit, who gave the remedy great conspicuity. Dr. Bundy, of Colusa, Cal., wrote many papers on its therapy; these were published in their journal, “New Preparations.” From an examination of the drug, as thrown upon the market, we find the species are confounded, several of them being generally sold as B. aquifolium. The B. nervosa is more commonly met within these sophistications, but we have likewise noticed B. repens in considerable amount. The confusion is, perhaps, unimportant from a therapeutical point, as all the Mahonias are bitter, and seem to contain berberine in nearly the same proportion (see Related Species).

Description.—The root of Berberis aquifolium is from 1/2 to 1 inch in diameter, often increasing to 2 and 3 inches at the base of the stem. It is woody, yellow throughout, very hard. The bark is deep-yellow beneath and brown upon the surface. It is without odor and very bitter. The roots of the other species of Mahonia are smaller; the B. pinnata more nearly approaching the B. aquifolium in size; the B. repens is the smallest of any of the known species.

Chemical Composition.Berberis aquifolium contains berberine, a yellow alkaloid (see Hydrastis), berbamine, and oxyacanthine, both white alkaloids, and phytosterin, gum, and sugar. The flowers contain, in addition to the above alkaloids, volatile oil, and the berries contain malic acid.

The presence of berberine renders both root and bark bitter. The white alkaloid, oxyacanthine (C19H21NO3, Rüdel), which forms soluble salts with most acids, is itself practically insoluble in water, soluble in hot alcohol and hot ether, and slightly so in cold alcohol and cold ether. It dissolves freely in fats and volatile oils, and in chloroform and benzol. It is alkaline, bitter, and in the presence of sunlight changes color, becoming yellowish. Iodic acid is reduced by it with the liberation of free iodine. With nitric acid a yellow color is produced, which, when heated, changes to purple. Cold sulphuric acid turns it brownish-red; on heating it changes to a vivid red, and finally a brown, color. With ferric chloride, in dilute solution of potassium ferricyanide, a blue color is produced with salts of oxyacanthine. Other names have been given this alkaloid to avoid confounding it with products of a species of thorn-apple, the Crataegus Oxyacantha. Thus vinetine was applied to it by Wacker, while Berzelius christened it berbine. Berbamine (C18H19NO3) is a white alkaloid the salts of which dissolve slightly in solutions of Chili saltpetre (nitrate of sodium). These salts strike a blue color with ferric chloride in a weak solution of ferricyanide of potassium. Phytosterin (C26H44O.H2O) is a neutral body (found also in Calabar bean, Physostigma venenosum, Balfour), differing from cholesterin, which it closely resembles, by its solution in chloroform not having any affect on polarized light.

Action, Medical Uses, and Dosage.—This agent has justly been extolled as an alterative and tonic, and has been recommended in syphilitic affections, salt-rheum, pityriasis, psoriasis, and other cutaneous affections, as well as in maladies supposed to be due to some mal-condition of the blood. Excretion and secretion are promoted by it; digestion and assimilation improved; the lymphatic glandular system and the ductless glands are stimulated; and the renal secretions somewhat augmented. Thus it acts as a blood-maker, and is therefore a remedy to oppose depraved conditions of the body-fluids. As a tonic, it may be employed as a synonym of hydrastis, colombo, berberis, etc., possessing in addition its own peculiar virtues, in dyspeptic conditions, chronic mucous maladies, and in certain enfeebled conditions of the system, etc. Owing to its invigorating power over the gastric functions, it is a valuable remedy for atonic dyspepsia, and more particularly if associated with hepatic torpor, for which it is also an excellent remedy. A cirrhotic liver, associated with gastro-enteritis, has been benefited by it, and for chronic constipation it is a useful agent when combined with cascara sagrada. It is said to be effectual in stomatitis.

The great field for berberis aquifolium is in constitutional syphilis and its manifold complications and sequelae. The disorders named above are more amenable to this drug when associated with a syphilitic taint than otherwise. If given early enough it will prevent tertiary phases, provided the patient has not been too thoroughly mercurialized. Its use must be prolonged in appreciable doses. It is especially adapted to long-standing cases of syphilis, the older the better, according to some of its advocates, and yet it is a remedy of much value all through the course of the disease. It is the remedy for that broken-down state so frequently following in the wake of that malady. The various eruptions give way to it, the gastric complications are subdued, and the mucous membranes are toned so that excessive secretions are restrained. Ɣ The bone and periosteal, as well as the muscular, pains of syphilitics, are amenable to berberis. Its action is slow but sure, as it is also in severe muscular pains, with partial paralysis, due to spinal disease. Long standing syphilitic phagadenae and herpetic and eczematous states, yield to it better than to most agents. It should not be forgotten in syphilitic anemia. Several stubborn cases of psoriasis (Ed. E. M. J., p. 148, 1896) have been cured by it, and it is a valuable drug in erysipelatous and chronic scrofulous affections. While it has failed to cure carcinoma, as its introducer, Dr. J. H. Bundy, believed it would, it has, however, shown itself of value in the dyscrasiae due to a cancerous cachexia.

Berberis aquifolium commends itself for study in certain pulmonic troubles, on account of its excellent results in controlling secretions of the mucous tract. Cases of purulent bronchorrhoea, pronounced incurable, have been cured by it, and Prof. Webster asserts that he has seen cases of phthisis recover, even where there were extensive cavities, under the use of this agent. The appetite improved, hectic subsided, expectoration became lessened, the cough milder and less frequent, and flesh and strength were augmented. The remedy should be long continued. Berberis is of some value in leucorrhoea, and particularly when a syphilitic taint exists. Owing to its remarkable power over mucous structures we would suggest its employment in gastric and intestinal catarrh. The principal uses of this drug have been developed by Dr. J. H. Bundy and Prof. Herbert T. Webster. The dose of berberis aquifolium should be relatively large. Small doses, as required of most of our important agents, do but little good.

The dose of the fluid extract is from 10 to 20 drops every 3 or 4 hours; of specific berberis aquifolium 5, 10 or 15 drops, every 3 or 4 hours.

Specific Indications and Uses.—Syphilitic dyscrasiae, constitutional syphilis, with periosteal or muscular pains; chronic skin affections, with blood dyscrasiae; profusely secreting, tumid mucous tissues; indigestion, with hepatic torpor; yellow skin, with marked weakness and emaciation.

Related Species.—”MAHONIA, the sub-genus of the genus berberis, is a fine, showy family of evergreen shrubs. The distinction between this sub-genus and the berberis proper, although very obvious, is not considered sufficient by authorities to entitle it to the rank of a distinct genus, hence the generic name is berberis, the same as the common barberry. The two species of the berberis proper, which grow in this country, are both deciduous shrubs, although there are several evergreen species found in the Old World. All the plants of the sub-genus, mahonia, are evergreen, and on this account they are often cultivated in yards and cemeteries, frequently under the improper name holly. There are four indigenous species found in the United States, all west of the Mississippi, and there are also a few other species in Mexico. Our native species are B. nervosa, B. repens, B. pinnata, and B. aquifolium. The two former are small plants, never over 2 feet high, and often only a few inches, while the other two are large shrubs from 3 to 6 feet high; hence by their height alone B. nervosa and B. repens can be distinguished from B. pinnata and B. aquifolium.

B. nervosa, Pursh, is a little erect shrub, with leaves often longer than the stem. The leaves consist of 3 to 6 pairs of leaflets and an odd one. The main leaf stalk of each leaf is very conspicuously jointed at each pair of leaflets, as remarked by Dr. Lindley, ‘like a bamboo stem.’ The leaflets are ovate, lanceolate, acute or acuminate; triple veined from the oblique base, and have teeth, not repand, but serrate. The flowers are in erect racemes, which are more slender than those of any other species. The plate of B. nervosa, tab. 5, vol. I, in Pursh’s work, is spurious. The leaves are correct, as intended, but the flowers are of the B. aquifolium. Since the plate is made up of two species, and hence liable to confuse, Lindley proposed to remedy the matter by changing the name to B. glumacea, but the change was not received with favor by botanists, and the name B. nervosa is still applied to the plant.

B. repens, Lindley.—A small shrub, procumbent, with short, erect branches. The leaves are often ternate, but generally of 5 or 7 leaflets. Leaflets are ovate, orbicular, acute, or the terminal leaflet obtuse; pinnately veined with repand teeth. Flowers in terminal fascicled racemes.

B. repens and B. nervosa are both employed by the western miners as blood purifiers, and as an antiperiodic, the B. repens extensively. We have several letters from physicians in widely separated portions of the great West, enclosing leaves of these varieties for us to classify and examine, all saying the root is extensively used for the above purpose. It is made into infusions and decoctions. The acid berry of the Berberis repens, under the name ‘mountain grape,’ is made into confections and freely eaten. It acts as an antiscorbutic, and is of great benefit to persons long deprived of fruit.

“The following description was kindly furnished by Dr. C. L. Aylworth, of Montana State: ‘The plant I enclose for description is called the Oregon grape. The fruit is eaten. It grows in medium or rich soil, among rocks or bushes, seldom in open ground. It is more plentiful upon the foot-hills of mountains, and along the banks of mountain streams, extending far down into the valleys. It does not grow in clusters, but I have seen it nearly cover the ground. It is common about all the small streams in this section of the Yellowstone valley, and about the headwaters of the Missouri river.’

“The root of the B. repens is a small, vine-like rhizome, resembling somewhat in appearance the Menispermum C., though not so fibrous. It is yellow throughout, woody, hard, and brittle. The bark, yellow within, is brown upon the surface and easily separated. The root and bark contain a large amount of berberine, which, together with other principles, is readily extracted by alcohol. It contains a principle in combination, precipitated by alkalies from aqueous solution. This, very likely, is identical with the white alkaloid of Hydrastis canadensis, or oxyacanthine.

“The medical profession at large is not acquainted with either of these plants under their proper names, although they may be upon the market for B. aquifolium.

B. pinnata, Lagasca.—This is the only species that is liable to be confused with the medicinal species, B. aquifolium, as both are about the same size, and closely resemble each other. The leaflets are lanceolate, acuminate, and of a light-green color, glaucous on the under side. There are 2 to 6, seldom more, large teeth on each side of the leaflet, each ending in a slender spine. The specific character by which this species may always be distinguished from the B. aquifolium, is the position of the lower pair of leaflets. These leaflets are approximate to the base of the common petiole in the B. pinnata, and never at a distance from it, as they are in the aquifolium.

B. pinnata, often called Mahonia pinnata, has not been used by the medical profession unless in local practice. It has been mistaken for B. aquifolium, which it nearly resembles, and from which its root can not be easily distinguished. Its berries are eaten by western settlers, and a tea from the root is used as a medicine” (from Berberidaceae, by C. G. and J. U. Lloyd) (see also Berberisand Berberis aquifolium).



On Apr 14, 2011, Erutuon  from Minneapolis, MN wrote:

Last year I planted Oregon grape in the shady area between our house and the next. It was a single-stemmed plant when I bought it, and it grew to about 4 feet high in two growth spurts in summer.
It stayed dark green for most of the winter, but when the snow started melting, the leaves that were above the snow (about 2 feet deep) began to turn tan and fall off. The upper part of the stem is dry and somewhat shriveled. Apparently only the snow-covered part survived the winter.
Two tiny leaves below the snow line are still green. Some sprouts are emerging on the lower part of the stem. I guess this year the plant will turn into more of a bush. Hopefully there will be enough snow next winter to protect it… without snow it doesn’t seem to be really hardy. Hopefully a flowerbud will survive till spring.
Update: This past winter (2011-12) there was very little snow, but the plant survived — I think all of its stems, actually. It’s grown a lot this summer. It’s now at least four feet high. It didn’t flower yet. I hope it will sometime. But till then, it’s still very interesting with its spiny and glossy leaves, especially when they’re young and rosy yellow.
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