Adventures with Oregon Grape Root
Last March I was lucky enough to participate in a local two day medicinal plant class which included a day long hike through some lushly forested private land. We spent much of the day learning to identify wild edible and medicinal plants with a special activity planned by our guide: harvesting Oregon Grape root for tincture.
Oregon Grape root (Mahonia spp) grows abundantly here in the Pacific Northwest and can be found not only in forests, but in urban neighborhoods, as well, where it is often used for landscaping. The two most common varieties seen here are Mahonia nervosa or dull Oregon Grape, a shorter variety often found in the forests growing beneath trees, and Mahonia aquifolium or Tall Oregon Grape, usually found in more open areas.
What makes Oregon Grape particularly attractive to herbalists is that its stems and roots contains berberine, the same bright yellow plant alkaloid also found in Goldenthread (Coptis chinensis) and Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), the herb so well known for its antimicrobial properties. Unlike Goldenseal which is listed as an ‘At Risk’ plant by United Plant Savers, Oregon Grape is more abundant and can be substituted for Goldenseal in most herbal formulas.
Our guide led us to an area where there were plentiful numbers of healthy, thriving Oregon Grape plants. Ever-so-carefully we removed the plants, one at a time, from the soggy forest soil, clipping about a two to three inch section of root from each before gently replacing the plant in the earth. After repeating the process several more times, we tidied up the area, leaving the space looking as close to that way we found it as possible. I took a few minute to silently acknowledge the plants’ gifts of medicine, leaving a generous sprinkling of corn meal in gratitude, taken from the small leather pouch which I carry with me on outings for such purposes.
As we returned to the campsite, cold and tired, we huddled around the crackling warmth of the fire pit inside a huge tipi. There we carefully washed and dried the roots, clipping them into thin slices, preparing enough plant material to loosely fill our small jars about ¾ full. We then added 100 proof (50% alcohol) vodka to our jars, filling them to the top, screwed on the lids and gave them a vigorous shake. Our guide suggested that we allow our tinctures to steep for at least two weeks, but if needed, we could use the medicine after several days. I had already decided to steep mine a full six weeks as I do with most of my tinctures, in order to capture the greatest amount of plant constituents.
Several weeks after my wonderful hiking adventure, I was sitting on the floor in my living room when suddenly I felt an intense itching on my shin, so incredibly strong that I could not resist the urge to scratch it to the point of bleeding. I never did see what bit me, but several days later the area, which increased in size to almost two inches in circumference, was very warm, red, hard, swollen and still, incredibly itchy. I rummaged through my herb cabinet, pulling out jars of dried Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) and Calendula (Calendula officinalis) to make a soothing fomentation. Although the area looked much improved after almost an hour of applying the warm herbal compresses, it was still red, puffy and oozing, obviously requiring something more to help with the infection. As I opened my herb cabinet once more, my eyes fell on the bottle of Oregon Grape root tincture, calling me to pull it off the shelf. As I held the bottle in my hands considering if this was what I needed, I felt the tincture singing to my heart, at first softly, but becoming increasingly stronger, telling me that its medicine was what I truly needed. The experience startled me, as I have never felt anything quite like this before.
I opened the bottle, carefully dropping a small amount of the precious golden liquid onto the wound on my leg. As I capped the jar, I held it to my heart, thanking the Oregon Grape for its medicine, feeling the heart connection between plant and human grow stronger.
The next morning, the bite looked much improved, so I repeated the fomentation process again over several more days ending each treatment with a few drops of the Oregon Grape tincture. Within a week, the area was nearly healed, with all signs of the infection gone.
Oregon Grape root tincture can be used both topically as well as taken internally for infections. It is astringent, anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, antiseptic and supportive of the immune system. Its mild laxative effect can help get a sluggish gastrointestinal tract moving. It is also tonic for the liver. The usual dosage for internal use is ¼ to ½ teaspoon up to three times per day (adult dose). Internal use of Goldenseal should be limited to no more than seven consecutive days before repeating, if needed. Internal use should be avoided during pregnancy.
Not only did my experience teach me first hand the powerful healing medicine of Oregon Grape root, but I was also awakened to how plants and plant medicines speak to us, giving us direction to help us heal. I cannot rationally explain how this works. I accepted long ago that there are just some experiences which defy the scientific logic we apply in an attempt to validate them. I have simply learned to accept that many things just are what they are, with no explanations needed.
If you have never heard of United Plant Savers (UpS), please visit their website:
UpS was founded in 1994 by Rosemary Gladstar and several other herbalists in an effort to protect native medicinal plants of the United States and Canada as well as their native habitat, ensuring a supply of these plants for future generations.
This information is offered for educational purposes and is not intended to take the place of personalized medical care from a trained healthcare professional. The reader assumes all risk when utilizing the above information.
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 A warm, moist compress using a clean cloth soaked in a strong herbal infusion, applied to the affected area for 20-30 minutes and reapplied, as needed.