Oregon grape is one of my favorite plants. It is known by many healers as the goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) of the West Coast. I have used it to heal many ailments, including those of my cat and other animals. I’ve also used it to make dye for wool and basketry and to eat the berries for nutrition. All parts of the plant are valuable and powerful healers. It is a plant to be respected!
Oregon grape lives in a tight, healthy tribal community, a perfect mirror of how a healthy human community once lived. It is very important to honor that community when harvesting this plant.
Go to the Oregon grape community with right intent. If you are a commercial “wild crafter” trying to make your quota, stay away! Oregon grape is a powerful plant.
Harvesting the Oregon grape
Habitat: The Oregon grape lives throughout the western part of North America, in mountainous areas on wooded slopes that are below 7000 feet. Oregon grape plants exist in a specialized ecological community. Oregon grape roots and thrives under especially powerful healing trees like red cedar, sequoia, and Sitka spruce.
Intention: Your intention should be first to learn the lesson the plant wants to teach you. Second, you should intend to use this medicinal plant wisely. Third, you should be respectful in harvesting, and fourth, you should always leave thankful for the medicine.
I guess I could also say that what I just shared with you should be the way to harvest all plants.
Selection: Never harvest the largest central plant. This is the mother plant, a vigorous plant whose roots reach out to the whole community. Sometimes if the community is quite large, there will be more than one mother plant. Think of these plants as tribal leaders. The largest plants in the community attract certain bacteria to the community soil, and they draw insects, other plant chemicals, and earth worms and other tunneling creatures that feed the community.
The largest plants are not always the ones that have the most color or the strongest medicine. Be respectful–the plants to harvest are the smaller ones. Oregon grape is best harvested in August or September when it is full of berries. It is OK if there are a few flowers on the plant.
Find the Oregon grape community. Look out in front of you, and you will see a plant whose leaves are especially green. The berries on the plant will be full and deep blue; the flowers, if still blooming, will be brighter than the others in the community. This plant will be in the outer circle of the community, not too near an animal or human path.
Root Harvest: When harvesting the root, slightly uncover the soil around the plant root. Do not pull up the plant! Find a side root, not the tap root. (The tap root is central to keeping the plant alive. It is the largest central root that provides nourishment for the plant.) Use a sharp knife that has been cleaned with an organic seed oil like olive oil or sunflower seed oil. Keep this knife clean between harvests. Always place an offering to the Oregon grape next to the plant. I carry tobacco, Mayan corn, or sunflower seeds that I grow especially for offerings. Be thankful. A root harvest is a wonderful gift from the Earth. I talk to the plant when I am harvesting. I tell the plant that I will use its root wisely. I talk about the healing that I need to do and ask for wisdom about the best way to proceed. I sit with my journal and write down what comes to me about the plant.
Using the Roots
The root of the Oregon grape contains strong medicine. The bright yellow root, a color caused by an alkaloid called berberine, can also be used for dye. Berberine, the most studied of the alkaloids, has been shown to possess fungicidal and antibacterial activities as well as resistance against protozoa such as Giardia lamblia, Trichomonas vaginalis, and Entamoeba histolytica. This is a very powerful healing plant and practitioners should consult a plant healer to learn to make the tinctures and infusions.
The Oregon grape root is the most commonly used part of the plant. Recent studies indicate that M. aquifolium contains a specific multidrug resistance pump inhibitor (MDR Inhibitor) named 5′methoxyhydnocarpin (5′MHC) which works to decrease bacterial resistance to antibiotics and antibacterial agents.1
Oregon grape root is used almost exactly like other Berberis and goldenseal species, as an alterative (an agent that gradually changes a condition), antibiotic, diuretic, laxative, and tonic. It is commonly used internally to detoxify the blood in an effort to cure skin problems, and occasionally it is used as a treatment for rheumatism. In homeopathy, Oregon grape is used as a tincture for skin diseases, like acne, eczema, herpes, and psoriasis.
Using the Berries
Many of the First Peoples of Western Cascadia used the berries for food. There was no difference between food and medicine for these indigenous peoples. They recognized that whatever you put into your body caused healing or disease. There was no such thing as recreational food. Native peoples used a few berries mixed with Salal or some other sweet berries as a staple dried food in the winter months. Today the berries are made into jelly (mixed with other sweet berries or fruit). The berries are also used medicinally to cleanse the liver and gall bladder and to treat eye problems. Don’t take all the berries on a plant; leave some for the birds and wildlife.
Using the Stems
The stems of Oregon grape were used by native peoples as a dye. Stems were shredded with Oregon grape root and soaked, and a bright yellow dye could be extracted from the mixture. I use sharp clippers to cut branches from a plant. When harvesting the berries and the stems, take a small amount from each plant.