Oregon Grape to the Rescue!

Last week, Pat got struck with that nasty flu that seems to going around these days.  His muscles were extremely achy, he felt fatigued and weak, he was feverish and chilled at the same time, and he developed a gnarly cough.  In the 13 years that I've known Pat, I’ve only witnessed him get sick a small handful of times, so naturally I was a bit concerned.

I urged him to rest up and drink plenty of fluids, and then I cracked open our medicine cabinet to asses the arsenal of tinctures and homeopathic remedies that we’ve accumulated over the years.  Amongst them was a tincture that I make each winter from the roots of a very potent medicinal plant that commonly graces the lush forests of the Pacific Northwest:  Oregon Grape (Mahonia nervosa)   

Hanging out amongst the Oregon grape!

If you've wandered the woods of western Washington or Oregon at all, then you've undoubtedly crossed paths with Oregon Grape.  Dwarf (or Dull) Oregon Grape (Mahonia nervosa) is a short shrub that grows up to 2 feet in height.  It tends to form a bit of a ground cover in wooded and partially shaded areas around here.  It likes to grow in rich acidic soil, in moist to dry conditions.  Its relative, Tall Oregon Grape (Mahonia aquifolium) likes to live in sunnier locations, and can grow up to 10 feet in height.  I often come across Tall Oregon Grape planted in urban landscaping.  Both species have leathery, shiny compound evergreen leaves with prickly, serrated edges.  Oregon Grape can sometimes be confused with invasive Holly, so refer to a field guide or local naturalist when in doubt about identification!   

We love to nibble on the young, soft, light green fresh leaves, as well as the bright yellow flower clusters of Oregon Grape in the Spring.  The leaves have a slightly sour and lemony taste that children seem to love.  The dusky blue Oregon Grape berries that ripen in Summer are also a favorite edible amongst our students, though I find them to be a bit too bitter tasting! 

Harvesting the OreGon Grape root, Brushing off the Dirt, and Stripping the bark!

This time of year, we look forward to harvesting the roots and the root bark of the Oregon Grape.   This is where some potent medicine lives.  Oregon Grape root contains several chemical constituents, most notably the bright yellow alkaloid known as berberine, which has anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, and antiviral effects.  Basically, berberine is a total badass that can fight against lots of unwanted bacteria and viruses!   (However, it can also fight against beneficial bacteria in the gut, so be sure to also replenish your “good bacteria” with fermented foods and probiotics when using Oregon Grape).

Medicine made from the Oregon Grape root has been used both internally and externally to fight all sorts of bacterial infections: eye, mouth, and wound infections, vaginal infections, gastrointestinal infections, Giardia, urinary tract infections, and MRSA, to name a few.  The antiviral properties of the berberine in Oregon Grape have been shown to effectively treat viruses such as HPV, influenza, and the common cold.

I like to make a tincture from Oregon Grape root to capture the medicinal goodness of the berberine in a highly concentrated and potent form.  Pat was super grateful that we had some Oregon Grape root tincture on hand last week, as it definitely aided in his immune system’s fight against the unwelcome flu virus that was lingering in his body.   A couple of droppers full of Oregon Grape tincture in some water made a huge difference and totally sped up his healing process!

Today, I am going to share with you a simple folk method of harvesting and preparing Oregon Grape Tincture:

Step 1-  Dig up the rhizomes and roots of the Oregon Grape plant and gently wash/scrub off the dirt.  Since you are essentially killing this plant by harvesting it's root, be sure to only harvest in a location where there is an abundance of Oregon Grape plants present  (Thanks OG for giving us your awesome medicine!)

Step 2-  Carefully strip the bark of the larger roots with a knife.  The entire smaller roots can be cut with pruning sheers or scissors.  Make sure that the bark that you are stripping reveals the bright yellow berberine on the inside.  If it's just a cream color, then it lacks medicinal potency!  

Step 3-  Fill a jar with fresh Oregon Grape root shavings to the top.  If using dried root shavings, fill the jar only half way to the top.

Step 4-  Pour ethyl alcohol over the Oregon Grape root, covering the shavings entirely and filling the jar to the top.  I use Everclear which is very strong at 190-proof and legally available for purchase in WA state at local liquor stores.  It's best to use at least 100-proof alcohol for fresh plant shavings or 80-proof for dried plant material.  Vodka works well for this.  If you prefer an alcohol-free tincture, use vegetable glycerine instead of alcohol. 

Step 5-  Cap the jar tightly.  Allow mixture to sit for 2-6 weeks in a cool, dark spot.  Give it a shake regularly.

Step 6-  Strain the plant material from the tincture using a muslin cloth or fine mesh sieve.  

Step 7-  Decant the tincture into a tincture bottle and add a label.  You are all set to use this potent medicine!  I like to use 1-2 droppers full of OG tincture in water a couple of times a day whenever I'm feeling ill.

There you have it friends, Oregon Grape Root tincture!  I am certainly not a medical doctor, so PLEASE consult your physician before experimenting with this or any other herbal medicines.  

Have a great rest of your week, and I hope to see some families at Deer and Fawn Day in Fairhaven Park next Friday!!!

Also, be sure to check out our upcoming “No School Day” Classes and Spring Break Nature Camp!

Oregon Grape in Alcohol, ready to infuse for a few weeks!