Good autumn leaf color, abundant clusters of yellow flowers and dark blue edible fruits have made this handsome, spiny leaved evergreen shrub a widely promoted ornamental, especially in the American West. Less well known are its coloring and medicinal properties, which have long been used by the first peoples.
The glossy leaves are divided into five to thirteen leaflets, each of which resembles a holly leaf. Red when newly open, the leaves become dark green in summer, then purplish or bronze in fall and winter, particularly when growing in bright sun where winters are cold.
The dense clusters of tiny flowers, which appear in March through May, are 5 to 8 cm long and slightly fragrant. Grape like berries 1 cm in diameter ripen in July through September and are the source of the plant’s common names, Oregon grape holly and Oregon holly grape.
First Peoples knew tall Oregon-grape well. They ate the fresh berries and on the BC coast used them as an antidote to shellfish poisoning. The Thompson peoples boiled the outer bark of the roots to make a bright yellow dye for baskets. Liquid from boiled woody stems helped treat red itchy eyes.
Tall Oregon-grape is a wonderful coastal landscape shrub. It’s attractive all year round and produces edible berries for us and for other animals and birds. The one in the photo has been growing in one of my gardens for over 10 years and is just beautiful.