Walk through a forest near my home in Portland, Oregon and you will often find Oregon Grape carpeting wide swaths of land. In city and suburban gardens, the taller Oregon Grape (Berberis aquifolium) is often planted as a hardy perennial for its pretty year round glossy green foliage, yellow flowers and blueberries. This is a plant that is near and dear to many herbalists as it is deeply useful for a variety of health complaints.
Let’s start at the beginning. There are several main species of Oregon Grape and all are useful for their medicinal value. The tall sun loving Mahonia aquifolium grows to 6 feet tall and has a deep thick tap root that offers the most medicine of the three species. Mahonia nervosa, known as dwarf or low Oregon Grape is found mainly in the woods and is more shade loving and much smaller- usually growing only a foot or two tall. While the tall Oregon Grape has 5-7 leaflets, the low Oregon Grape has 9-19 leaves. Finally there is creeping Oregon Grape (Mahonia repens) that grows very low to the ground. All three have holly like glossy, leathery and spiny leaves that can sometimes turn from green to red and yellow late in the season.
Oregon Grape is native to North America and grows throughout much of the country. Oregon Grape can be grown in farms for its medicinal value and should be very carefully and ethically gathered in the wild as we don’t want to damage the population of this amazing plant. The floral industry value Oregon Grape for its foliage and foragers can do quite a bit of damage through overharvesting this important plant.
The main portion of Oregon Grape that is valuable is the inner stem bark of Oregon Grape. If you scrape back some of the root bark you will find the golden yellow inner bark that is rich in the important alkaloid berberine. More about that in a moment. Like most roots, harvesting is best done in the early spring or late fall when the plant reduces valuable energy to outer leaves and flowers and the valuable root constituents are most readily available.
The best way to work with this plant is to purchase the root from a reputable Oregon Grape farmer or from a vendor connected to that farmer. If one chooses to wildcraft the herb it is key that one understands the ecosystem and avoid damaging the population of Oregon Grape. Oregon Grape is rhizomatous so gathering one or two plants from a large clan of interconnected Oregon Grapes in the wild is okay if done with the utmost care.
The larger Oregon Grape is somewhat harder to gather as the taproot is bigger and deeper. The dwarf Oregon Grape has rhizomatous roots that are more shallow and can be simply pulled up and then cut. After gathering the roots , the upper stem can be cut and actually replanted in soil to replace what has been gathered.
The root carries most of the medicine but one can also gather the berries to make jams and jellies. A lot of sweetener is needed as the berries are extremely tart. Often its best to mix the berries in with sweeter berries such as blueberries and salal berries.
One can also work with the flower as a flower essence. Oregon Grape flower essence is offered to strengthen a sense of trust in ourselves, our strength and beauty without giving power away to others.
So now- the root. The most important factors associated with Oregon Grape root is that it is quite bitter and that it carries the alkaloid
berberine. The bitterness of the herb signifies its medicinal value in a number of areas. As I described in my Bitters article, humans have co-evolved with bitter tasting plants and the body perceives of some bitter tastes as poisonous. The body mounts a systemic response to bitter plants as a way to manage the possibility of poisoning. This systemic response touches all parts of our body- from our digestive system to our cardiac function, our immune system, our smooth muscles and our nervous system. This systemic response actually improves our metabolism, improves digestive functions and supports greater resiliency and adaptability to stressors.
Oregon Grape root is extremely bitter and really a small bit goes a long way. That bitter taste causes the tongue to produce more saliva, increases the production of liver bile to help emulsify fats, increases digestive enzymes and HCL secretions to help process food, absorb nutrients and eliminate waste more efficiently. That bitter taste is often indicated for those appear damp, stuck, lethargic, heavy with heat signs such as skin eruptions. I once developed a half dollar patch of eczema on my neck that I treated with a decoction of dandelion and burdock root, Oregon Grape root and a pinch of licorice. It cleared in a week.
I see it as helpful for PMS that includes cramping, tension, frustration/irritability, bloating, headaches and general dis-ease.
Besides the importance of its bitter taste, it also carries the important alkaloid berberine. Berberine is found in a number of herbs that
are highly valued medicinally. Probably the most well known here in North America is goldenseal (Hydrastis candadensis). Unfortunately this is a classic example of an herb becoming so popular that it has been overharvested to the point of endangering its viability as a species.
Berberine itself is highly antimicrobial and studies have shown that it can even clear up MRSA infections that are resistant to standard antibiotics. That is a deeply important point as antibiotic resistant infections have been growing steadily as bacteria learn to adapt and overcome synthetic antibiotics.
That anti-infectious quality of berberine makes Oregon Grape deeply important to help with a number of different types of infections. It can be part of a throat spray for throat infections, is helpful for eye infections (as a wash), for skin infections (poultice), for infections in the upper digestive tract and for urinary tract infections. It can also be helpful at the onset of a cold for fighting an infection.
Finally, its important to note that many indigenous groups have a long history of working with this root for a number of complaints.
Blackfoot: Hemorrhages and stomach complaints
Nitinaht: Laxative, tuberculosis
Okanagan-Colville: Blood tonic, eye wash, kidney tonic
Samash: General tonic
Squaxin: Sore throats
Swinomish: General tonic
Thompson: Rheumatism, arthritis, itchy, red eyes
The roots have also been used by numerous tribes as a yellow dye for basketry, clothing and art. And of course numerous tribes have worked with the berries as as food usually in the form of jam and jelly.
As a specialist in mental health aspects off working with herbs I like to consider the best use of Oregon Grape. This is really a plant that is helpful for folks who appear hot, damp, stuck, lethargic, frustrated, wired with tension throughout. In Chinese medicine it would be good to add as part of a formula for “Liver qi stagnation”, describing both a congested liver and digestive system as well as someone who appears frustrated, angry, tight, wired, anxious and depressed.
In this way we think of working with Oregon Grape when a person needs to cool down, unwind, release tension and clear heat.
Latin name: Mahonia aquifolium, nervosa, repens
Parts Used: Primarily root- berries and flowers
Taste/Energetics: Bitter (highly), sour, cooling
Properties: Stomachic, alterative, hepatic tonic, anti-microbial
Healing Actions: Sore throats, upper digestive infections, UTI, eye wash, topical antimicrobial for skin, eczema, constipation, onset of colds, heat signs/frustration/anxiety
Making Medicine from Oregon Grape
There are a few ways to work with Oregon Grape root. First cut the root and scrape out the outer bark layer until the golden yellow interior is visible. One can then peel this inner bark or often just use the whole root cut into parts. The root is extremely hard when dry and almost impossible to process at that point without a heavy duty chipper. Its best to cut the root up fresh.
Tincture: 50-75% alcohol 1:2 fresh 1:5 dried. Take 10-20 drops up to 2 x/day for no more than a week.
Tea: A little goes a long way and for most folks this is an herb that is best blended as a small part of a larger formula. A nice bitter formula that I mentioned above would be 1 part dandelion root 1 part burdock root, 1/2 part Oregon grape and an 1/8th part licorice. Decoct 2 tablespoons and decoct in a quart of water for 30 minutes.
The Oregon grape decocted by itself makes a nice external wash.
This is an herb to be highly revered and respected for its intense bitterness and berberine alkaloid. It has long been used for a variety of complaints. We should be cautious in gathering this in the wild and rely mainly on purchasing the grown root from reputable vendors. Oregon Grape is one of those amazing native plants that helps with a variety of complaints. The main contraindication would be for pregnant women to avoid its use.
This article written by Jon Keyes, Licensed Professional Counselor and herbalist. For more articles like this, please go to www.Hearthsidehealing.com. You can also find me at the Facebook group Herbs for Mental Health.Follow me on Instagram