Oregon Grape

Although it has limited use as a culinary ingredient, Oregon grape is packed full of medicinal potential. Learn all about Oregon grape's medicinal potential, history, and characteristics.

Quick Facts
General Information
  • Common name(s)Oregon grape, hollyleaved barberry, mountain holly
  • Scientific nameMahonia aquifolium, Berberis aquifolium
  • Native regionNorth America
  • Main producer(s)United States of America
  • Main Economic UseMedicinal
Oregon Grape

Oregon grape hails from North America and has particular importance in its namesake state, Oregon. It typically grows in the Rocky Mountains and can survive as high as 7,000 feet (2,000 meters), but can also be found in areas ranging from Colorado to the Pacific Coast. The history of Oregon grape stretches back centuries to use by Native Americans, and today the Oregon grape is recognized for its valuable medicinal uses.

Medicinal and Nutritional Information

Quick Facts (Medicinal and Nutritional Information)
  • Medicinal actionAntimicrobial, Antiviral
  • Key constituentsBerberine, hydrasine
  • Ways to useCapsules, Decoctions, Tincture, Ointment
  • Medicinal rating(3) Reasonably useful plant
  • Safety rankingSafety undetermined

Health Benefits of Oregon Grape

Oregon grape has not been the subject of extensive research, but preliminary studies have shown that it is likely to be useful for:

  • Treating skin conditions. Several painful and itchy skin conditions, such as eczema, psoriasis, and acne, can be ameliorated with Oregon grape.
  • Relieving digestive ailments. Oregon grape has been shown to improve stomach problems, including diarrhea and possibly irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
  • Healing bacterial and fungal infections. Oregon grape has antimicrobial properties that give it the ability to kill several different bacteria and fungi.

How it Works

The most potent compound in Oregon grape is an isoquiline alkaloid called berberine, which is responsible for the majority of its health benefits. Berberine demonstrates significant antibiotic and antifungal properties, which helps to heal infection as well as heal skin conditions. It has also been shown to have a beneficial effect for those suffering for diarrhea, although the exact mechanism of this action is unknown.

Oregon grape also contains tannins and alkaloids, which are known for their anti-inflammatory properties. These compounds help to reduce pain and irritation associated with skin ailments, and they can also reduce inflammation in the intestinal tract to improve digestion.

Oregon Grape Side Effects

Oregon grape is thought to be safe in recommended amounts, although little research exists about the internal use of the herb. Taking Oregon grape internally for more than two to three weeks is not recommended. Topical use of Oregon grape appears safe, but may cause itching, burning, irritation, and allergic reaction.

Oregon Grape Cautions

Oregon grape may interact with medications such as tetracycline, doxycycline, or cyclosporine. It may also interact with medications that are broken down by the liver. Additionally, children and those who are pregnant or breastfeeding are advised to avoid all forms of Oregon grape, as berberine – the main active component – can cause brain damage in infants and young children. Oregon grape should not be used to treat infections without consulting a doctor.

How to Consume Oregon Grape

Quick Facts (How to Consume)
  • Edible partsFruit
  • TasteTart

Oregon grape is not commonly eaten raw, but it is used as an ingredient in a number of foods and can also be used in several different medicinal preparations.


Main preparations: Tea, tincture, capsule, ointment

  • Tea. Boiling three teaspoons of chopped Oregon grape root in two cups (500 mL) of water makes a tea that can be used to improve digestion. Up to three cups (750 mL) of this tea can be taken per day.
  • Tincture. Up to three-fourths of a teaspoon of tincture can be taken up to three times per day. It can be used internally to treat digestive issues or applied to the skin to heal eczema or psoriasis.
  • Capsule. Oregon grape capsules can be taken as an easy way to obtain the herb's digestive benefits without experiencing the herb's taste.
  • Ointment. Ointment made from Oregon grapes is especially useful for healing symptom of skin conditions caused by inflammation.


Most of the culinary products made from Oregon grapes use the plant's berries. The most common preparations are jellies and wines. The berries are rarely eaten by themselves because of their tart flavor, but they may be eaten when mixed with other, sweeter berries.


Fresh Oregon Grape

Though not impossible, it may be difficult to find Oregon grape outside of its native region in the northwest United States. The wines and jellies may be bought at grocery stores or local markets. The grapes themselves are rarely for sale, but the whole plant may be available in some gardening centers.

Oregon Grape Supplements

Supplements made from Oregon grape are available in specialist herbalist shops, although they, like foods made from the plant, may be less common outside of the plant's natural habitat. All of the preparations are available online.

Plant Biology


A member of Berberidaceae, or the barberry family, Oregon grape has many varieties that are distributed throughout North America. Oregon grape plants are slow-growing perennials. The shrub reaches an average of six feet (two meters) tall and feature long, yellow roots. The plant bears small yellowish-green flowers, and the purple berries generally arrive in autumn.

Varieties and Subspecies of Oregon Grape

Mahonia aquifolium is sometimes referred to as Berberis aquifolium. The plant has several cultivars and hybrids. One such hybrid is M. x wagneri 'Pinnacle', which is a combination of M. aquifolium and M. pinnata. The 'Apollo' and 'Versicolor' cultivars are also notable.

There are numerous species that are often confused for Oregon grape, with two being particularly abundant in Oregon. These are M. repens (creeping barberry) and M. nervosa (cascade barberry). The creeping barberry is almost identical to M. aquifolium, but is a lower-growing plant. This sort is more common in western Oregon. The cascade barberry is not a shrub, but rather a groundcover plant, and it can cover areas of 10 – 14 inches (25 – 35 cm).


Quick Facts (Growing)
  • Life cyclePerennial
  • Harvested partsRoots, Fruit
  • SoilPeaty
  • Soil pH6.1 – 6.5 (Slightly acidic)
  • USDA Plant Hardiness Zones5a (From −28.9 °C (−20 °F) to −26.1 °C (−15 °F)), 5b (From −26.1 °C (−15 °F) to −23.3 °C (−10 °F)), 6a (From −23.3 °C (−10 °F) to −20.6 °C (−5 °F)), 6b (From −20.6 °C (−5 °F) to −17.8 °C (0 °F)), 7a (From −17.8 °C (0 °F) to −15 °C (5 °F)), 7b (From −15 °C (5 °F) to −12.2 °C (10 °F)), 8a (From −12.2 °C (10 °F) to −9.4 °C (15 °F)), 8b (From −9.4 °C (15 °F) to −6.7 °C (20 °F)), 9a (From −6.7 °C (20 °F) to −3.9 °C (25 °F)), 9b (From −3.9 °C (25 °F) to −1.1 °C (30 °F))
  • Pre-germination seed treatmentStratification
  • Plant spacing average2 m (6.56 ft)

Oregon grape cultivation is fairly simple, as the plant does not require excessive care, nor is it difficult to maintain. It is a popular garden choice for its decorative appearance as well as for its ability to attract bees and butterflies, encouraging the pollination of plants throughout the orchard or garden.

 Growing Guidelines

  • Oregon grape is generally propagated by seeds, which can either be planted directly in the ground or sown in containers and transplanted.
  • Early spring is the best time to plant Oregon grape, although it may be transplanted from a container through the early summer.
  • The best soil for Oregon grape is moist, rich, well-drained soil that is either sandy, loam, or clay.
  • Ideally, Oregon grapes should be planted in soil with a pH level of 3.5 – 7.0. Oregon grapes cannot tolerate alkaline soil.
  • Oregon grapes may be grown in partial sun to full shade, but plants grown in full shade may not produce as much fruit.
  • The plant requires occasional to moderate watering; it can withstand drought conditions for a period of time, but cannot withstand flood conditions.
  • It is advised to plant Oregon grapes in US hardiness zones 6 to 8.
  • Plant seeds or seedlings six to seven feet (2 m) apart.
  • Oregon grape may be pruned after its flowering period ends if the plant becomes straggly, but pruning is not otherwise required.
  • Fertilizer can be used in the spring to increase the plant's yield.
  • Few pests will attack Oregon grape, and no pests pose a serious threat.

Additional Information

Quick Facts (Additional Information)
  • Other usesDye

Plant Biology

Oregon grape plants are slow-growing perennials. The shrub reaches an average of six feet (1.8 m) tall and five feet (1.5 m) wide, and it features long, yellow roots. The plant bears small yellowish-green flowers, and the purple berries generally appear in autumn.

Oregon grape may also be called holly grape because of its holly-shaped leaves.

  • Classification

A member of Berberidaceae, or the barberry family, Oregon grape is one of 700 other species that belong to this family. Its official scientific classification is Mahonia aquifolium, although some older sources may refer to it as Berberis aquifolium.

  • Related Species

Oregon grape is related to several species of plant that are often mistaken for each other. M. nervosa (cascade barberry), M. repens (creeping barberry), and M. pinnata (California barberry) are three plants that are often confused with Oregon grape. M. repens in particular is difficult to distinguish from Oregon grape because the two plants are physically very similar; however, M. repens does not grow as tall and has a wider habitat range, growing farther south than Oregon grape.

Historical Information

Oregon grape is thought to have been used for thousands of years by Native Americans, for its culinary uses, its medicinal uses, and other practical uses. However, few records about the plant exist until much later, when interest was revived in the 19th and 20th centuries. In 1899, it was declared the state flower of Oregon, and has since become more economically important.

Economic Data

Demand for Oregon grape products has increased since the plant goldenseal – which also contains berberine – became endangered due to overharvesting. Oregon grape is mostly produced in Oregon and a few other states in the northwest of the United States. In 2010, it was estimated that in a typical year, unprocessed dried Oregon grape root sales range from 20 – 30 tons, up to the value of $230,000 USD.

Other Uses

Uses of the Oregon grape have also traditionally extended to dye-making, and the Native Americans utilized the yellow bark and wood for this purpose. In fact, Oregon grape cream can stain clothing if care is not taken when applying it.

In modern times, Oregon grape is generally cultivated for landscaping as a low-maintenance, drought-resistant shrub, and it is also commonly used by florists in flower arrangements.

Oregon grape's ability to heal skin conditions, soothe digestion, and kill fungi and bacteria make it a valuable herbal remedy, and its ornamental appearance makes it a great addition to any garden or bouquet.