Hiking in the mountains of Utah, I often find the holly-like leaves of Oregon Grape. In the spring, bright yellow flowers can be spotted amid the leaves and in the fall, dark, purplish-blue berries. The berries are edible, but just barely, due to their very sour, almost bitter flavor. Still, I once gathered some and mixed them half and half with regular grape juice and made an excellent grape jelly, so they sweeten up very nicely.
In herbal medicine, it’s the root that’s the medicinal part. It’s one of several plants that contain berberine alkaloids, which have a mild antibacterial action. The species I find in Utah is Berberis repens, but B. aquifolium is the more commonly used species (although both are equally effective). When I was first learning to identify wild plants they classified both species in the genus, Mahonia (M. repens and M. aquifolium), but they’ve been reclassified in the Berberis genus. This makes them close relatives of barberry (B. vulgaris), another plant commonly used for its berberine alkaloids. Medicinally, this makes sense, since Oregon grape and barberry have very similar medicinal actions.
The alkaloid berberine is also found in Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), which has been severely over-harvested and is endangered in many of its natural habitats. While Oregon grape doesn’t do everything that goldenseal does, it can act as a substitute in many applications and is much more abundant and less expensive.
Berberine-containing plants have been used as antibacterial and antifungal agents and generally have a tonic effect on intestinal mucosa. They cool intestinal inflammation, promote bile flow and have a gentle laxative effective.
The Chinese use seventeen different barberry varieties in their medicine. All contain berberine and are used mainly to treat various intestinal infections, as well as to stimulate the uterus and to relax the intestinal smooth muscle. According to Chinese medicine these plants are primarily bitter, astringent, cooling and drying with secondary qualities of being restoring and decongesting.
Various Native American tribes used preparations of the roots of creeping-Oregon grape (B. repens) to treat stomach troubles, to prevent bloody dysentery, and as a blood purifier. They also used it for kidney and bladder problems and venereal diseases.
Oregon Grape root bark was traditionally used in America and Europe to treat liver and gallbladder problems, jaundice, indigestion, diarrhea, urinary tract disorders and gout, rheumatism and arthritis. Modern herbalists use it for similar conditions.
While any berberine-bearing plant is likely to have similar actions, Oregon grape is more strongly restorative to the entire system, notably the liver. It is particularly useful in skin eruptions, like psoriasis, and has more affinity for the lymphatic system than barberry or goldenseal. It is a gentler remedy, too, more suitable for children and the elderly.
Oregon grape is sold as a single liquid glycerite, and is also found in Gall Bladder Formula, LBS II, LB-X, BP-X and All Cell Detox. I also use it as a flower essence. The flower essence helps people who are paranoid and/or anticipate hostility in others.
A Modern Herbal by M. Grieve
Berberis repens by D. E. Moermann in Flora of North America
Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy by Simon Mill and Kerry Bone
The Energetics of Western Herbs by Peter Holmes