Klara's Plant Pick: Oregon grape
August 27, 2020
This is the beginning of a sometimes-series about plants in Upper Blackfoot Valley.
Are you interested in a particular local plant? Contact the BVD to let us know! All plant information is provided in consultation with local botanist Klara Varga.
The Mahonia repens, better known locally as Oregon grape, grows across the Upper Blackfoot Valley. A plant with coarse leathery leaves, this local shrub can easily be found on a walk through Blackfoot Pathways: Sculpture in the Wild by looking for the native plant sign identifying it. Many of the leaves stay through winter, and the plant is identifiable year-round (so long as it's visible above the snow).
Also called "creeping barberry," Oregon grape is known for its adaptability in fire survival, sometimes sprouting as soon as four months after a fire. Outside of Montana, it grows across the intermountain west and Pacific northwest, including Utah, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon, among other places.
While this plant is not suitable for livestock, it is an important forage plant for wildlife, according to the Fire Effects Information System of the United States Forest Service. Elk, birds, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, moose, and bears are all local consumers.
According to the FEIS, traditional uses for Oregon grape among Native Americans included medicinal treatments for acne and rheumatic stiffness, and as a cure for dysentery, stomach troubles, and heartburn. The berries were added to soups for flavor and the roots used as a yellow dye. Currently in fruit, the grapes come in green and purple.
Oregon grape can be made into wine, jelly, or a tart lemonade-like beverage. Like huckleberries and chokecherries, the fruit starts green and turns to a blue-purple as it ripens and sweetens. As fall progresses and cold weather begins to kill off other plants, these same frosts will sweeten the Oregon grapes, improving their flavor.
To find and pick, look on the lower slopes of the valley for pockets with dense patches of Oregon grape. Ponderosa pine stands and other sunny woods are a good place to start.
Oregon Grape Lemonade recipe: Pick and wash Oregon grapes. Mash grapes in a glass and fill with ice. Add 4-6 parts water to 1 part grape juice and stir. Add sugar to taste.