Yellow flowers brighten the hedgerows of Port Townsend. Oregon grape is in bloom! In a couple of months the flowers will mature into berries. Keep an eye out for when they do.
The clusters of ripe berries are tempting. With a name like Oregon grape you would think they would be sweet—but only pop them in your mouth if you want an adventure in flavors. I do so I do. Taste is an interesting subject, if you need everything super sweet you miss out on life’s bitter and pungent flavors. Our culture seems to thrive on sweet, fatty, or salty flavors. Cultivate a healthy palate for the more obscure and you immediately eat healthier foods. I relish bitter and pungent herbs. Tinker Cavallero has made jam with the pectin-rich berries and says it is delicious with a little sweetner.
One of my favorite things about Oregon grape is the bright yellow root hidden beneath the root bark. This berberine-rich root is used medicinally and as a dye plant. When I used to be a landscape gardener I would come across the roots as I was weeding or adding compost to the soil. It spreads by suckers—not as fast as raspberries, but enough to form thickets over time. When I found the roots spreading into other plants, I pulled them out and clipped off a section about four inches long to chew on—like chewing on licorice roots. I enjoy the bitter and earthy flavor.
The roots have medicinal qualities that are best preserved in alcohol-based tinctures. Berberine is an alkaloid similar to the alkaloid hydrastine found in Golden Seal. Both chemicals provide antibiotic and antifungal properties. Oregon grape is also good for the liver, and is anti-inflammatory.
Permaculture gardeners can use this plant for creating wild habitat and hedgerows at the outer edge of their property. It is a great choice for bank stabilization. Purchasing the plant at a nursery can be expensive, especially if you buy varieties like Mahonia ‘compacta’ (The nursery trade has not caught up with the name change, but native plant societies refer to it by its new name Berberis aquifolium,) It grows so easily from seed that you can find the plant from mail order nurseries that specialize in bare root bundles of conservation plants. Order them in late winter.