Mahonia repens (Lindl.) G. Don
Synonym: Berberis repens
General: trailing and widely stoloniferous and
woody shrub 10-30 cm tall. Bud scales in the
3-8 mm long, mostly dropped soon.
Leaves: alternate, pinnate, the 5-7 leaflets oblong to
or ovate- lanceolate, 3-8 cm long, 2-5 cm broad, less
than twice as long as broad, with mostly 15-43 prominent
to small spine-tipped teeth, the upper surface glossy
dull, the lower surface always dull and more or less waxy-
coated in appearance, covered with minute bumps
only under at least 15x magnification.
Flowers: yellow, several in clusters 3-8 cm long. The 3
bractlets (or outer sepals) somewhat greenish, 2-3 mm
long. The 3 inner sepals 6-8 mm long, bright yellow,
longer than the 6 oblong, 2-lobed petals. The 6
usually with 2 short, more or less spreading
teeth at the tip
just below the anthers.
Flowering time: April-June.
Fruits: berries, deep blue, round-ellipsoid, 7-14 mm
covered with waxy coating.
Lower foothills to forested slopes, in w., c. and s.e. parts of
from OR and e. WA to Alberta and s. to SD, TX,
UT, s. NV, and n.e. CA.
Edible and Medicinal plant, see below.
(click on image for full size)
(click on images for full size)
Berries of creeping mahonia are very sour but edible when fully ripe. As with other mahonias that produce
fine large berries, creeping oregon grape has been used to make apple-mahonia jelly, wines, pies, and
the flowers make an excellent lemonade substitute. The berries are produced in substantial numbers, blue
with a white dusting. They are edible after a frost or two which increases their fructose content and
decreases their pectin content. Early European settlers and Native People used the berry for food. The
fruit has a strong, distinctive flavor, but is not edible until frozen in autumn. While berries are still
green in summer, they are mildly toxic, though mainly the potentially toxic alkaloids are present in the
leaves and stems. There is no case of toxic response in humans eating the berries, though this may be
partly because they are unpalatable until they are fully ripe and been through a freeze or two, by which
time they are tasty and perfectly safe. The
berries are also high in Vitamin C and have often been used to treat scurvy.
Creeping mahonia contains the alkaloids berberine and oxyacanthin. These compounds are present throughout
leaves and stems, and are toxic to cattle. A rash to human skin may occur from spines on the leaves.
The root and root bark have agents that are pain-relieving, antiseptic, laxative, fever-reducing, tonic,
that gradually restore health, increase bile flow to the intestines, tend to purify and cleanse the blood,
induce urination, and that induce the removal (coughing up) of mucous secretions from the lungs. It improves
the digestion and absorption and is taken internally in the treatment of coughs, fevers, psoriasis, syphilis,
hemorrhages, stomach complaints, kidney problems and impure blood conditions.
It is the rootstock's healing qualities which made it prized by native people who crushed and dried the
yellow roots to cure a wide variety of ailments like ulcers, heartburn, rheumatism, kidney problems, and
some skin conditions. The early settlers learned about this root's amazing medical properties in the 1800's
and Oregon grape tonics were a popular market commodity. Herbalists recommended soaking the roots in warm
beer to relieve hemorrhaging.
The active ingredient that makes Oregon grape
such an effective remedy is well known to us today. It is an alkaloid called berberine (which powerful
healing constituent is found also in goldenseal). Berberine stimulates bile secretions and modern herbalists
and homeopaths believe it promotes good liver function and purifies the blood. Most herbal manuals recommend
steeping an ounce of dried root in a cup of tolling water, with a dosage of 3 tbsp. daily, although they
warn that persons with over active livers should stay away from this root.
Creeping mahonia was used by the Navajo to make a lavender dye from the berries and a yellow dye from
the roots and underbark. Yellow stem wood was used by Native Americans to produce a bitter tonic. Plants
form suckers freely, making a good dense ground cover, though they can be slow to become established.
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