This herb takes me back to the start of my path of Herbalist. I had just move from my homeland of Washington State to our sister territory of Oregon. Just as mossy, lichenous, and rainy, me a bit more sunlight, greenhouse mugginess in the summer and less dense crowds… opens spaces sure do call my name loudly.
As I started to know the plant kingdom, Mahonia immediately was already a part of my repertoire. Mahonia is easily identified to a budding herbalist, and is also simply differentiated between species. This making Mahonia an easy plant to pinpoint, know, and divulge in. Its holly like leaves are fascinating. When I pulled my first rhizome for harvest, my green heart swelled as the rich rain forest soil was tilled by it’s underground growth. The smells that came from its self-made tunnel were mind altering, and resonated deep with knowing of home, and love. Following the shallow growth pattern of the rhizome through the rich humus soil of the Pine, Spruce and Cedar rain forest,made me want to shrink down and dive in. After this, I never turned my back away from the herbalist path.
What does Oregon Grape Look like?
Oregon grape has a spiny evergreen leaf. Though when the plant grows on open slopes it turns a brilliant red in the fall after heavy frosts. It adds so beautifully to the changing forest-scape out here in the Rocky Mountains. Brilliant red and maroon along the ground with quaking aspens giving a golden thread to the skyline. Our main species out here is Mahonia repens,and Mahonia nervosa are ones that creep along the forest floor. Their rhizomes take them along not far below the surface of the soil. The taproot however, dives deep into the rocky ground. A larger cluster of foliage usually stems out and up a bit higher at the center of the plant This is also usually where I find the biggest clusters of purple berries in the late summer time.
The berries form from the classic Oregon grape form from little balls of brilliant yellow petals. This makes them easily spotted when walking through the summer time forest. Mahonia’s berries are quite bitter, but they can be made into lovely syrups, jams and sometimes tea with a little effort. I have munched on them on my forest walks as they are quite delicious. The bitter taste keeps me satiated from hunger, and reminds me how important this TR is.
Blow the surface of the cedar colored bark, the rhizomes are an incredibly vibrant yellow . It matches the color of Bile, and thus hints to it’s main use; a tonic and stimulant to the Gallbladder. The yellow color of the rhizome comes from Oregon Grapes’ primary alkaloid constituent Berberine. This alkaloid is a vibrant one in color, and action. Berberine is responsible for the bile like yellow-green color of the inside of the root and rhizome and is showing to be incredibly beneficial to the body for many conditions. Also, it is an incredible anti-inflammatory herb. The powerful action of this alkaloid helps to calm spasms of smooth muscle, increasing bile secretions and is very anti-bacterial (PubMed has many sources of this information in Medical Studies).
Bitter Responses in your Body
It directly tonifies the Gallbladder and is a classic bitter tasting plant. Bile being a primary component of digesting fats properly as it is an emulsifier, which breaks fats down into short chain, medium chain and long chain fatty acids for assimilation in the small intestine. You can train your body to use fats in this way so that it is used for fuel to burn as energy instead of being stored. Not only is fat food for our brains, it also nourishes the skin, joints, organs and nervous systems. This making Bile a key component to well being and vital health.
Digestion is a focus for me as an herbalist, because all health starts there, but this is not the only reason that I love Oregon much. Oregon Grape has many powerful alkaloid constituents. Many other helpful tannins, antioxidant constituents,and antimicrobial components. Making it a great topical remedy for skin complaints, especially that of Psoriasis. Making an oil of the leaf, rhizome powder,and berry too to add to any salve recipe will give your blend an antimicrobial boost. It also heals by support and encouragement, instead of stimulating skin cell regeneration which adds to its benefit for Psoriasis.
Sustainability… what does that look like?
Michael Moore, our beloved late herbalist, highlights this plant in all his Mountain and Coast line publications. He goes over very thoroughly of the constituents and Oregon Grapes many uses. Moore was a very well-studied herbalist in our region. Not only does his research contain massive amounts of individual plant constituents. He also goes over the stability of the population of Oregon Grape in the wild. It is a prolific grower, and with an exception of Mahonia aquafolium, this plant can be mindfully wild harvested throughout the regions of the west. I do not dig taproots because this truly is the life force of the plant. I take the time and extra energy it takes to harvest rhizomes only, and of course stick to the healthy rule of 3’s.
Oregon grape is a cooling bitter herb, so I love to apply it to acidic conditions and hot digestive complaints. I do not encourage the use if a person tends to run colder with cool extremities, and it is very much contraindicated for use during pregnancy. Purchase your Mahonia Mountain Bitters HERE in my online store!
Thank you for reading, I am happy to be your herbalist,