Oregon Grape—Pacific Northwest Native

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.

Choose this plant for bank stabilization
Choose this plant for bank stabilization
Flower close-up
Flower close-up

Garden Crops from an Ecological Perspective

Biological systems often unfold in cycles. The cultivated crop cycle is often interrupted: seeds germinate, seedlings sprout, plants leaf out, and crops mature. Depending on what part of the plant we value as edible, the vegetable may never fully mature before its remains are tossed on the compost pile. In seed saving we allow the crop to complete its cycle like any other flowering plant. (Some crops are completely dependent on us to reproduce, especially in cold climates.) Let’s let that carrot, lettuce, or kohlrabi complete it’s cycle. The robust plant is ready.

Soon flowers emerge, advertising a plant’s sexual maturity. Petals act as scented banners enticing flying insect cupids to sip nectar. As the visiting insect works its way through the fertile flowers it brushes up against pollen grains that cling to it.  The insect courier carries pollen to the next flower. There are two events that must happen for flowers to produce viable seed—pollination and fertilization. When a ripe anther splits open and a fertile pollen grain lands on the stigma of a female reproductive organ, the first hurdle is achieved. The next journey is internal and results in a pregnant flower that swells with the fruit of a new life—One friend remembers the difference as recreation versus procreation. Fruits can be juicy as tomatoes or hard as mustard seed. The seed itself may look inert but not only does it hold the potential to produce an edible plant, it will contribute genetic coding for generations to come.

Biodiversity assures that there are many ways for this seed-to-seed cycle to unfold. The observant seed saver begins to recognize patterns that are consistent throughout plant families. The basics of botany provide a shortcut to hone our observation skills and develop the seed-saving expertise that humans have been sharing for 10,000 years.  We use botanical terms to define plant anatomy and scientific terms to describe processes. This jargon provides a common language to convey the principles of seed saving. The important thing is to observe, understand what we see, and then apply the principles through time-honored techniques.