Friday, November 4, 2011

Photo Friday - Oregon Grape Root

Photo Friday is here. Every other Friday I choose a plant and post a plethora of photos amidst some herbal tidbits. 

A couple weeks ago a friend of mine called to ask for a favor. She had a fairly large oregon grape plant in the middle of her garden. She had let it grow there since it was part of the native landscape. However, after years of watering and compost it was stretching too big. Would I be interested in harvesting it? she asks. 

Hell yes! 

It took me three hours to completely uproot the plant and then another 7 hours to scrape off the root bark for tincture. Spending hours with this plant and crafting it into medicine was well worth it! 

So in homage to this beautiful plant, I chose Oregon Grape Root for this week's Photo Friday. 

There are several species of this plant that grow frequently in the Pacific Northwest. According to Tom Elpel there are 520 species worldwide.  Mahonia aquifolium is the one that grows most frequently around me. Mahonia nervosa is frequently found on the other side of the Mountains. You can tell the two species apart by how many leaflets they have. 

Sometimes referred to as Tall Oregon Grape, Mahonia aquifolium has 7-9 leaflets. 

photo from wiki commons
Sometimes referred to as Dull Oregon Grape, Mahonia nervosa has 9-19 leaflets. 

True to its name, Tall Oregon Grape grows quite tall and can form dense patches of shrubs. 

In the spring yellow flowers appear bloom from the holly-like leaves. These flowers are edible. They have a slightly sour taste that goes well mixed into wild salad greens. 

Photo from wiki commons
Oregon Grape flowers have parts in threes. The above photo shows the 6 stamens, six petals and six sepals really well. 

The very young tender leaves can also be eaten. We chop them up finely and sprinkle them over vegetables and meats.

Once the leaves have matured however, they are quite spiny. I've often been pricked so deeply I've bled from the spines of the leaflets.  

Photo from wiki commons
The yellow flowers emerge into purplish blue berries. These berries can be coaxed into edibility. Be warned, depending on climate these are disastrously sour. I've had pretty decent oregon grape wine. Most people add loads of sugar to them to make syrups and jams. 

If the berries can be described as disastrously sour, then the roots are are decidedly bitter. 

The yellow coloring is due in part to the constituent berberine. In the herbal world you'll often hear people refer to "berberine plants". Oregon grape root, goldenseal, coptis and others all contain this constituent and are somewhat interchangeable for its action on the liver and its anti-microbial properties. 

It's vibrant yellow coloring also lends itself well to being a dye plant. 

At Mountain Rose's first annual Rootstalk festival I took a class from Howie Brounstein solely on Oregon grape root. The class was filled with interesting and humorous insights from his lifetime of working closely with this plant. 

Besides learning how it had saved his life (when he had a nasty tooth abscess while he was stranded on an island), I also learned about recent research showing how is  contains a specific multidrug resistance pump inhibitor (MDR Inhibitor) named 5'-methoxyhydnocarpin (5'-MHC). 

At the time that was Greek to me too. 

Basically, what this means is that it works to decrease bacterial resistance to antibiotics and antibacterial agents. Since resistance to bacteria is becoming an increasingly alarming problem this is fantastic news. Howie says that pharmaceutical companies are rushing to patent this constituent. (insert snarky comment here)

Oregon grape root is being threatened with over-harvesting due, in part, to the florist business. Those green leaflets stay vibrant looking long after they are picked making them very desirable for arrangements. Keep an eye on your local plants and report any illegal harvesting that you see. 

When harvesting the root for your personal use, learn how to harvest it sustainably. Horizontal and somewhat superficial roots can be sparingly harvested from the plant, leaving the remaining plant to grow. 

This fall I tinctured five quarts of the root bark. They'll go to good use at the Methow Herbal Health Center

Very informative monograph by Kiva
King's American Dispensary on Henriette's site
Further information about 5'-MHC