Dark purple berries

As I was walking through the trees the low morning sun illuminated the almost-hidden berries of the Oregon grape bushes. These prickly leaved little bushes hide in the shadier parts of the woodland, nestled companionably against the lower trunk of huge Douglas firs. The berries look like small dusty dark grapes, inviting, but with a very sharp, tangy flavour. I’m told they make a tasty jelly with enough sweetening.

While in the woods it is called Oregon grape, in the garden centres you’ll find it called Mahonia. It has small yellow flowers in early spring, followed by these lovely dark berries that birds like. Its leaves are both prickly and shiny, much like holly leaves. Their Latin name Mahonia aquifolium honours first of all Bernard Mahon who first cultivated the plant brought back as a specimen by Lewis and Clark. ‘Aquifolium’ means that has shiny leaves (presumably looking as if they have been watered). It grows wild down the Pacific coast from British Columbia down to northern California.

This is a useful plant. In the garden it makes a prickly hedge to deter invaders and will grow under trees where the soil is poor and most plants die. You can make jelly from the berries and use the leaves in flower decorations. Recent research has found the plant has anti-bacterial properties and its root may have anti-cancer properties.

But it doesn’t have to be useful to us. It can just delight the eye as a slant of sunlight catches it, share ground cover to protect tiny creatures and supply birds with food in winter.

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