A Grape? A Holly? No – A Barberry!

When I first discovered this tall, ungainly plant in my new backyard deep in the shade of pines and oak, I thought “Holly”. The stiff, pointy-tipped leaves actually hurt if I accidentally brushed against them and the woody stems added to the identification. Then as spring arrived, here were panicles of yellow blossoms on stem tips quite uncharacteristic of any self-respecting holly. Later as the heat of summer rolled in, there appeared oblong, grape-like berries of a blue-black hue which looked surprisingly like upside down Concord grapes. I was confused! I opened up a “grape” and found a large ripening seed which was definitely not a grape. Then I discovered Oregon and their state wildflower – The Oregon Grape-Holly! It was as if Oregonians couldn’t make up their mind either. Now that I tentatively identified this now very tall visitor from another state, I could research and add to my wildflower knowledge as well as that of my blog followers.

Doesn’t the leaf look like a Holly? And the fruit like a grape? Meet the Oregon Grape-Holly (Mahonia aquifolium). The second Latin name is translated as “sharp-leafed”.

It turns out that the Grape-Holly is a member of the Barberry family and goes by its genus name – Mahonia – in plant nurseries. The yellow blooms are like a daffodil’s in a small trumpet shape but it is hard to notice flower details as the large panicle captures your attention.

Each individual blossom is small and resembles a tiny trumpet.
The blossoms have a spicy scent although not overwhelmingly so. There are those “holly” leaves again!

Native Americans ate the berries as many birds do. They can be collected at ripeness and made into a jelly although a lot of sugar is needed – and a lot of berries. Outside of the Pacific Northwest the Oregon Grape is considered invasive although my plant never spawned any baby Mahonia and I did cut back suckers every few years if I dared get close enough to do so. I remember picking out dead limbs and branches to make it more attractive and walking away after the mild pruning with tiny holes in my hands from the “holly” leaves. I should have worn gloves. The berries can be harvested and seeds collected and sewn in Fall or Spring or propagation can be successfully done with rooted cuttings taken in the Fall. Actually, the Oregon Grape is a good landscape plant in the back of a shady garden. Its evergreen leaves give contrast and structure to the garden in all seasons – just beware of the thorns and keep kids away from the false but enticing “grapes”.

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Monrovia Nursery recommends Summer Sweet, or Clethra, as a companion plant.
Fothergilla, or Witch Alder, is also a recommended companion. Wouldn’t it be neat to research all the “Witch” plants and find out how they got their names?
I never tire if Iris and this Oregon beauty is found along the Pacific Coast.
Parnassia, or bog-star, is found in wetter environments in Oregon and varieties are common throughout the US.
The Oregon Grape!!

Now we are back on the virtual road to Pennsylvania and we will sit astride our horse with General Robert E. Lee as he observes a beautiful wildflower bush at Gettysburg and use his description of its unfolding flower blossom as his plan to overcome the Union forces.

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