This attractive evergreen shrub grows wild throughout Oregon and is cultivated as a decorative plant in urban areas where it will attract birds, bees and butterflies. It has a low profile, rarely growing taller than 10 feet (3 m) and forming irregular, often scraggly-looking clumps. Starting in April, the shrub will produce brilliant bursts of yellow flowers – Oregon’s official state flower. Shortly thereafter, clusters of a dark blue, grape-like fruit will form at the end of the branches. It is tolerant of both shade and direct sun and requires little care to maintain.
Despite the name, it is not a true grape. Its Latin name translates to mean “holly-leaved,” a reference to its leaves which have serrated edges, although it’s not related to holly either. The Oregon Grape is in the family Berberidaceae, a group of flowering plants often referred to as barberries. In an effort to avoid confusion about what the plant actually is, some botanists will refer to it as the Oregon grape-holly or Oregon holly-grape, although these are still not particularly suitable names.
Both pioneers and native peoples used the Oregon Grape as a food source. The dark berries can be eaten raw, but are tart and were usually mixed with other foods to soften their flavor. European American settlers used the berries to ferment wine, but again, had to add large quantities of sugar to make it palatable. Extracts from the plant can be rendered into topical medicines to treat skin diseases like eczema and psoriasis.
The Oregon Grape is native to the West Coast of North America, from southeast Alaska to northern California. It grows all along the Oregon Coast, although only sparsely east of the Cascades.