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Oregon Grape

    Woodlands in Seattle are carpeted mostly by three common evergreen groundcovers: Sword fern, Salal and Oregon grape. They are so abundant that everyone can easily become acquainted with them. If you can tell pigeons, crows and robins, you can recognzise common wild shrubs, too. Each of these three species can grow over acres, making lush colonies of green. Actually the Oregon grape consists of two species, a low one and tall one. Both bear holly-like leaves, yellow flowers and powder-blue berries.
Tall Oregon grape

    Tall Oregon grape (above) is Oregon's state flower. It grows usually at least waist-high, frequently 8 feet, and some in Seattle reach 12 feet. In extreme age and good conditions it can attain 15 feet. The leaves consist of 5 to 13 glossy leaflets, each edged with sharp teeth like a holly. In spring the shrub makes crowded clusters of bright yellow, minute flowers. These are lovely and lightly scented. Then the brand new leaves shoot forth, bronzy colored and tender at first, gradually becoming stiff and prickly. In late summer or fall the berries ripen. Sometimes in winter the leaves turn purplish. Tall Oregon grape is also called Shining Oregon grape, and is known to most botanists as Berberis aquifolium, to most horticulturists as Mahonia aquifolium. (Neither name is exclusively correct; it is a matter of whether a person adopts a narrower or broader judgement in delineating genera and species.)

Low Oregon grape

    Low Oregon grape (above), also called Dull Oregon grape and Cascade Oregon grape, is Berberis or Mahonia nervosa. It is usually only knee-high to waist-high, and its leaves are much longer, with 9 to 23 less glossy leaflets. Its flowers appear later in April, in skinnier clusters, and its berries ripen later. It is far more common in woods, while its tall cousin is more common in open places.
    Both species are useful to bees for their flowers, and to birds or other animals for their berries. It is somewhat well known that humans can use the berries to make jelly. However, the flowerbuds, flowers, tender young leaves and immature berries are also edible raw, tasting sour like sorrel. I prefer the flavor of the low-growing species. As for the berries, eating them while green and young is more pleasing to me than waiting until they turn blue, plump with purple juice. When fully ripe they are exceedingly sour and seedy. By squeezing the juice from enough berries I have made the world's most nutritious popsicles.
    The inner bark of the roots and stems is a distinctive bright yellow from berberine, an alkaloid useful in herbal medicine for treating skin problems, dysentery, sore throats, diarrhea, syphilis, cholera and whatnot. Some people buy dried Oregon grape root pieces from herbal stores to make their own medicines. Partly for its berberine content, naturopathic physicians have long used Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis; not a close cousin of Oregon grape). Use of any plant containing berberine should be done in moderation, as excessive quantities may be harmful. There is no evidence that nibbling Oregon grape flowers, flacid young leaves, or berries is anything but delightul. Taste it and judge for yourself.

(originally published in The Seattle Weekly, April 1997)

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Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert

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