Oregon Grape Root (Mahonia spp.)

Name: Oregon Grape Root, Yerba de Sangre 

Botanical NameMahonia spp.

Energetics: Cold, dry

Taste: bitter

Actions: bitter tonic, liver stimulant, antimicrobial


Unlike many of the herbs I write about, this one has been well loved (if a bit misunderstood) in the herbal community. Many of my favorite herb teachers and writers have discussed it extensively in books, workshops and classes. I have therefore hesitated to write anything much about it, feeling as if I would mostly be repeating what has already been said. However, I have now used it enough times and in enough ways to feel as if I have a few things to add and have in some cases, synthesized existing knowledge into a more useful, practical whole than has previously been done. All uses, unless I note otherwise, have been confirmed by me through either personal or clinical experience.

Before we get rolling, let me make one statement: this is NOT, definitely NOT, an analogue for Goldenseal. Yes, they are both yellow and both contain that infamous constituent, berberine, and so both can function efficiently as an antimicrobial. Nevertheless, they are different plants and should be treated as such, so let’s just get over that little stereotype right now.

First of all, quality control. If your Oregon Grape Root is not yellow and bitter, it’s not going to work very well. I have occasionally, when running out of my wild harvested supply, ordered the root from commercial sources of good repute, only to be very disappointed. Repeatedly, it has arrived in the form of pale yellow to cream wood splinters. As is to be expected, it doesn’t work worth a damn. The root and stem bark I harvest myself from local wild plants (it’s a slow grower here but very widespread in the Ponderosa Pine forests) is bright orange-yellow in color and strongly bitter. It works extremely well. This is not to say that there’s not some good stuff floating around the market, just that you need to be on the lookout for certain characteristics that will give you an idea of the vitality and efficacy of the medicine (if only it were so easy with all plant matter).

The living plant is nothing short of breathtaking. It can range in stature from a tiny creeping plant among the rocks and pine needles of middle mountain forest, or it can be six feet tall in full sunlight depending the spp. and locale. In the spring it bears golden bell-shaped flowers and in summer and fall it has small to medium sized dark blue to black berries. The evergreen leaves are prickly, holly-like and leathery, with a waxy sheen that sometimes turns purple and scarlet in colder weather. The bark and roots are a satisfyingly smooth texture with warm brown outer bark and brilliant golden-orange inner bark, sometimes bright yellow all the way to the center of the pith.

The berries range in taste from bitter to sour, and when more on the sour side, make an excellent (bordering on incredible) jam, wine or pie. Do be sure to strain the seeds out of whatever you make though, they’re very bitter and unpleasant. The jam tastes a bit like Elderberries, a bit like Wild Grapes, but actually wholly like Oregon Grapes — which to say wild and earthy and intoxicating. They often stay on the larger bushes for many months in great juicy bunches, making for easy harvesting (except for those prickly leaves).

Oregon Grape Root has very clear indications, and it’s simple to figure out when this plant is or is not appropriate. I consider it a foundation herb in my materia medica — widely applicable, easily available, and simple to process and use.

The predominant indication for Oregon Grape Root is heat, often accompanied by dampness and putrefaction of some kind. It is an excellent anti-microbial, drains dampness and stimulates the liver and digestive process. Very specifically, it helps (in a great big kind of way) the metabolism of proteins and lipids. For many of us adrenally burned out but still overheated kind of folks who can get nauseous just looking at fish oil, this is a real boon.

Constitutionally, the person who needs Oregon Grape Root will frequently have dragon breath, gum disease, bloating, chronic flatulence, constipation (or constipation rotating with diarrhea), dry skin, a sense of sluggishness and tiredness with little appetite, and often have a red tongue with a white or yellow coating (although sometimes they will have no coating whatsoever). They pee too much and sometimes their pee is dark and bad smelling, and get dizzy upon changing position quickly. They will often have a yellow, dull appearance to their skin in varying degrees. They crave sugar and have some level of blood sugar lability and a difficult time digesting fat and protein. And, they very often have allergies and a tendency to leaky gut especially when get stressed out or eat something the least bit funny or “wrong”.

When it is used as a constitutional tonic where thoroughly indicated it can work seeming miracles. All of a sudden a hundred disparate symptoms can all be resolved all at once. This of course is because all those weird symptoms (bad skin, bad breath, constipation, dizziness and indigestion for example) all have a common root (in this particular pattern) in a sluggish liver (and accompanying weak metabolism) and kidney deficiency. I find that Oregon Grape Root often works best for me in formula, according to the specific needs of the individual. For people who are currently experiencing an acute, hot condition but are generally cold I will oftentimes temper the coldness of the Oregon Grape Root with something a bit more warming and somewhat stimulating like Rosemary. Even where there’s not a perfect match constitutionally, this herb can be a huge help, especially as part of a sensible, well thought out formula for the metabolic and digestive system.

Northwest herbalists Howie Brounstein and Ryan Drum first brought Oregon Grape Root’s antimicrobial qualities to my attention. Since then, I’ve included it in a great many formulas (and sometimes as a simple) for toothaches, gut infections, food poisoning, UTIs and other infections where appropriate. It is especially effective where there is high heat, possible purulent discharges and other symptoms of dampness. It is not nearly as effective in cases that of longstanding, cold in nature, non-healing wounds in my experience. In those cases you need something warming and possibly toning, like Yerba Mansa. But where it is clearly indicated, it works phenomenally well and is very dependable. Where there is lymphatic congestion and deep infection, I tend to include Alder as well.  Oregon Grape Root is not a newcomer on the scene, and has been recognized as an effective antimicrobial for quite some time.

from Dr. John Scudder in 1883:

“It is both a blood maker and a blood cleanser, and as there is no known remedy so virulent to micro-organisms of nearly all varieties, as healthy blood serum, berberis [now mahonia] becomes, indirectly if not directly a microbicide.”

Thomas Avery Garran, herbalist and TCM practitioner, also notes that it is useful for cases of heat from either excess or deficiency, and finds it especially appropriate for deficiency heat.

Oregon Grape Leaf makes an excellent salve for all kind of wounds and abrasions, especially for those with redness and other symptoms of heat, as well as being an underused but effective treatment for psoriasis. The powdered root also make a fine dusting powder for all kind of wounds and infections with heat.

from Michael Moore in Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West:

“The salve, tea or diluted tincture is often of value in treating psoriasis topically, along with internal use. It is an antioxidant against rancid lipids, and may help in slowing down or lessening the metabolic stress from lipid free radicals, often implicated in chronic autoimmune and allergic inflammation. Further, new research has shown that both Barberry and Oregon Grape diminish the drug resistance of many newer strains of Staphylococcus aureus.”

Don’t miss that last bit there, it’s important. I have not seen the results of this particular application but it is certainly worth keeping in mind. I often combine Oregon Grape Root leaf with Alder leaf and Mugwort leaf in my favorite all-purpose salves. It also combines very well with Larrea.

Preparations & Dosage: The bark/root tastes unpleasant to most palates (intense bitterness mostly) and I prefer to use a tincture diluted in water and sipped slowly for most applications. However, the decoction may be more appropriate in cases where there is a serious systemic infection in order to more fully ~saturate~ the body with its medicine. I make a standard tincture of either fresh bark (1:2, 95%) or freshly dried bark (1:5, 50%) with a dosage ranging from just a couple of drops to half a dropperful, depending on the situation. Used as a constitutional tonic, smaller amounts will be required, whereas use as an antimicrobial will require significantly larger doses in most cases. Dosage of decoction is equally variable, although I tend to start with a couple of sips to quarter cup doses in average sized adults. Salve is standard preparation, made either with olive oil and beeswax or with lard. I prefer to use dried instead of fresh leaves, from my understanding that the dried leaves are more easily extracted into a strong medicine than the fresh.

Cautions & Contraindications: most types of hepatitis (you will see in the links below that Ryan Drum disagrees with me, when in doubt, go by constitution), people with a red face and high blood pressure who don’t pee enough. These are dandelion (or burdock maybe) people and they don’t need Oregon Grape Root, it’ll just piss their livers off.

Oregon Grape Root effects liver metabolism of many pharmaceuticals, and in most cases should be avoided while on meds to avoid possibly dangerous interactions.

Also, exercise caution using this herb for long periods of time in people who are cold and weak. Remember, this is an herb for ~heat~. This also applies to people experiencing heat from deficiency, be gentle and vigilant and it’s usually best to use a balancing formula in these cases.

Harvesting: I collect the roots and stem bark (or whole stems) whenever the inner bark is bright yellow. Here, that seems to be nearly year round but it may vary with location. Berries are harvested when ripe (blue-black, tender and plump) and preferably young, new leaves but they are effective pretty year round. Watch out for those prickly leaves, they will tear your hands up. Most have the sense to use gloves but I do it barehanded, albeit slowly and carefully.

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