Mahonia species have a long historical use by native Americans as food and medicine for appetite, debility, arthritis, cancer, ulcers, kidney, heartburn, and skin conditions. In the 19th and 20th century it was commonly used for chronic diseases such as cancer, arthritis, syphilis, chronic hepatitis and jaundice. Berries of the plant are said to be high in vitamin C and were used for fevers and scurvy.
Modern herbalism uses Oregon Grape Root for chronic hepatitis, scaly skin conditions, and as a liver and gallbladder tonic to improve digestion. The root is extremely bitter and therefore stimulates bile and digestive enzymes to assist the liver, pancreas, and gallbladder. The constituent berberine is the yellow component found in the roots (and stem of some varieties). It provides the antimicrobial and bitter liver stimulant effect. This effect explains the liver tonic benefits that assist in skin conditions or a myriad of other diseases caused by poor liver function. The antimicrobial benefits are used externally for eye and gum infections and internally for digestive system infections. The berberine constituent is now being studied and used for multiple drug resistant infections such as Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).
Dr. Christopher’s 100 Herb Syllabus states:
Oregon Grape to slowly but surely cleanse the bloodstream. It will create appetite, promote digestion, improve absorption, and increase strength and vitality. It gently improves bowel evacuation and urine elimination and is very healing to the lymphatic and skin tissues.
Usual Preparation and Dosage:
Tincture: 1-4 ml 1:5 tincture 3 x a day.
Decoction: 1-2 teaspoons root 1 cup water 3 x a day.
BHP: 1-2 grams dried herbs or 1-2 ml liquid extract (1:1) 3 x a day.
Bioregion Growing and Harvesting
Mahonia is thought to have 100’s of similar species, several of which are found throughout the United States and Canada. Mahonia aquifolium is a shrub that reaches 3-5 ft. It has dark green, shiny spiny holly like compound leaves with 5-9 alternate odd numbered leaflets. The very young leaves are edible. The number of leaflets varies within the plant species and is used to assist with identification. M. nervosa has 9-19 and M. or Berberis trifoliolata seen in the video below has only 3 leaflets. My local High Desert variety, M. Fremonti, is said to have 3-7 leaflets.
The flowers are edible yellow clusters with 6 petals, stamens, and sepals. Berries are dark purple and said to be quite sour. However they have been used throughout history for tasty wine and jam. The berries are ripe July to September.
Over harvesting is a concern due to use in the floral industry and the current trend to use it to replace the even more threatened berberine containing plant goldenseal. Oregon Grape root is currently on the United Plant Savers watch list. Though it is used as a replacement for goldenseal it is important to remember that the two plants do have differences such as goldenseal being more tightening and intense. The root can be harvested at any time. It is important to use sustainable practices when wildcrafting Oregon Grape Root. The horizontal roots closer to the surface can be harvested without pulling up the entire plant. Herbalist Elise Krohn found that the large branches contain berberine as well and can be cut instead of killing the entire plant. The outer bark with the yellow component is then shaved off. It is said that the roots purchased from commerce that are cream colored or only pale yellow are not strong medicinally, however I have still seen good results using them for eye infections.
This is a detailed video by survivalist and herbalist Sam Coffman where he identifies and discusses in detail the uses of both Oregon Grape (Mahonia aquifolium) as well as another Berberidaceae family herb, Algerita (Berberis trifoliolata).
Recipe: Liver Decoction
2 tablespoons Oregon grape root
2 tablespoons milk thistle seeds
1 tablespoons burdock root
1 tablespoons yellow dock root
Mix all above herbs. Take 1-2 tablespoons mixed roots and break them up some with a mortar and pestle. Place in pot and cover with 8 ounces water. Bring to boil, reduce heat, and simmer 20 minutes. Take in one cup a day or divided doses.
Oregon Grape Root is an amazing herb and there is so much to be said about it. While I have attempted to give you a clear picture this article does not go into the deeper details of the constitutional uses of this herb. You can uses the sources below to study these issues in more depth.
Photo Friday – Oregon Grape Root, Rosalee de la Foret 2011
Oregon Grape Root – It could save the world, Rosalee de la Foret 2012
Oregon Grape, Elise Krohn 2013
Medical Herbalism: The Science and Practice of Herbal Medicine, David Hoffmann
The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to New World Medicinal Plants, Matthew Wood
Herbalpedia-Oregon Grape Root, Herbmentor.com
Medicinal Plants of the American Southwest, Charles W. Kane