Mahonia aquifolium

Oregon Grape

Mahonia aquifolium

Oregon Grape

Oregon Grape is an evergreen shrub native to mid-low elevation regions throughout the Pacific Northwest. Due to genetic similarities between Mahonia, the genus of Oregon Grape, and Berberis, the genus of Barberries, many species are shuffled between the two genera. The ability of Mahonia species and Berberis species to hybridize further complicates this, and Mahonia aquifolium is now synonymous with Berberis aquifolium. Mahonia aquifolium, the larger of the two Mahonia species, is a common wild plant in the transition zones at a forest’s edge, and is used as an ornamental plant that can commonly be seen in residential gardens in Seattle. M. aquifolium has 5-9 spikey, waxy, undulating leaflets per leaf, that resemble holly. The other species, M. nervosa, grows low to the ground in dense cedar and Douglas-Fir dominated forests, and has 9-19 much flatter, non-spikey leaflets per leaf. Oregon Grape is in the Berberidaceae plant family, which also includes Barberries (Berberis spp), Horny Goat Weed (Epimedium grandiflorum), Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum), and Blue Cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides). Oregon Grape is not a grape (Vitis spp) at all, but gets its name from the purple fruits that form following a robust yellow flower cluster. It resembles a holly bush and the species name ‘aquifolium’ is derived from classical Latin: aqua, water + folium, leaf. Thus, the name ‘aquifolium’ refers to the shiny, wet appearance of the leaves of Oregon Grape and Holly. The Latin binomial for the common Holly tree is Ilex aquifolium.

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Traditional Health Benefits of Oregon Grape

Immune Support, Digestive Support, Liver & Cleanse Support

What is Oregon Grape Used for?

The tender young leaves of Oregon grape are edible - and have a lemony taste similar to sorrel. The berries are typically not eaten in large quantities due to their tart and bitter flavors, but traditionally were mixed with the berries of Salal, an abundant understory shrub in the PNW, and huckleberries to be dried into fruit leather. A yellow dye extracted from the stems and roots of Oregon Grape was used to dye baskets, fabric, and cordage. The yellow pigment in the stems and roots of Oregon Grape is related to various antimicrobial alkaloids, most notably berberine. Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) is an endangered plant that is well known for its berberine content, making Oregon Grape a more sustainable choice of a berberine-containing herb. The bitter compounds in Oregon Grape stimulate bile release from the liver and gallbladder, which in turn is supportive to the skin, gastrointestinal tract, and immune system. Oregon Grape root is considered specific for conditions of heat paired with dryness, as its bitter properties promote the release of fluids in the body (saliva, bile, enzymes), and by supporting the functions of the liver, Oregon Grape root can assist the body’s detoxification processes which help to clear heat from the body. Berberine has been the subject of numerous clinical trials. Isolated berberine has diverse actions and uses, which include use in eye drops, use for supporting a healthy glycemic response, a healthy immune response, and healthy cardiovascular function. It is important to note however that a single compound from a plant is not representative of the chemical complexity of the whole plant. Therefore a single compound’s effects (i.e. berberine) are not equivalent to the effects and chemical complexity of a full spectrum extract (i.e. Oregon Grape).

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Active Constituents of Oregon Grape

Alkaloids including berberine, berbamine, columbamine, jatrorrhizine, palmatine, magnoflorine and others

Parts Used


Additional Resources

1. 2. Elpel, Thomas J. Botany in a Day: The Patterns Method of Plant Identification, an Herbal Field Guide to Plant Families of North America. 6th Edition. 2013. Pages 80-81. HOPS Press, LLC. Pony, MT. 3. Pojar, Jim, and Mackinnon, Andy. Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast. 2004. B.C. Ministry of Forests and Lone Pine Publishing. Vancouver, B.C. 4. Wirth, C., & Wagner, H. (1997). Pharmacologically active phenolic compounds from the bark of Mahonia aquifolium. Phytomedicine, 4(4), 357–358. doi:10.1016/s0944-7113(97)80047-5 5. Galle, K., Müller-Jakic, B., Proebstle, A., Jurcic, K., Bladt, S., & Wagner, H. (1994). Analytical and pharmacological studies on Mahonia aquifolium. Phytomedicine, 1(1), 59–62. doi:10.1016/s0944-7113(11)80024-3 6. Wood, Matthew. The Earthwise Herbal: The Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants. North Atlantic Books: Berkeley, CA. 2008. 7. Tilgner, Dr. Sharol Marie. Herbal Medicine from the Heart of the Earth. 2009. Wise Acres LLC: Pleasant Hill, OR. 8. Abascal K, Yarnell E. Recent clinical advances with berberine. Altern Complement Ther 2010;16(5):281-7.

Important Precautions

Not for use during pregnancy or lactation. If you have a medical condition or take pharmaceutical drugs please consult your doctor prior to use.


This information in our Herbal Reference Guide is intended only as a general reference for further exploration, and is not a replacement for professional health advice. This content does not provide dosage information, format recommendations, toxicity levels, or possible interactions with prescription drugs. Accordingly, this information should be used only under the direct supervision of a qualified health practitioner such as a naturopathic physician.

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