Oregon is in many ways a maverick state. It is the only one of 50 to have a two-sided state flag. On one side is the shield from the state seal along with “State of Oregon” and her founding date of 1859. On the reverse is a golden beaver. According to the Oregonian, the reason for the beaver’s presence on the flag is because it “was the primary incentive for early exploration and it dominated the fur trade era in this part of the Northwest … its appropriateness is intensified also by the beavers’ commonly accepted attributes. It is the universal thrift and industry and constructive endeavor – qualities as essential now as ever.”
“The Beaver State” further asserted her independent nature by adopting a new/old state motto dating back to her territorial days, “She Flies With Her Own Wings” in 1987. This territorial motto replaced the old one, “The Union,” from 1859, which likely reflected the settlers’ at the time pro-Union sentiments regarding the coming Civil War.
The official state flower shows Oregon’s uniqueness as well as her practical and down-home nature. Rather than choosing some showy ornamental or native plant whose bloom catches the eye, the Oregon Legislature in 1899 adopted the Oregon Grape as the official state flower. The Oregon Horticultural Society had debated on the subject at their annual convention in 1892, and after much consideration nominated the Oregon Grape. Other species considered that didn’t make the cut were the Washington Lily, Wake Robin, Bearded Gaillardia and the Madrone.
Sometimes called “Oregon Holly” or “Holly Grape” it is not just the common name that is variable. There is a rather intense debate among botanists on how to classify the three common Oregon species of the grape (aquifolium, nevosa, and repens).
The long-accepted classification for the variety chosen for our state flower, Tall Oregon Grape, was Mahonia aquifolium. Current thinking is that there is not enough difference in the Mahonias from Oregon from the other Barberry varieties found worldwide. So sometimes the Oregon Grape genus is listed as Berberis. Just a side note that Mahonia was to honor Bernard McMahon, an early Irish-American who became a close correspondent and advisor to Thomas Jefferson in horticultural matters. He was one of the two plant people to receive specimens and seeds collected by the Lewis and Clark expedition. Oregon Grape was discovered on the banks of the Columbia by Clark and seeds ended up being cultivated and promoted by McMahon in his garden guide.
The plants, regardless of what you call them, are native, hardy, and drought tolerant. Forming clumps by spreading rhizomes, the attractive shiny leaves with the distinctive pokey shapes, are a valuable wildlife food. The bright yellow flowers are early pollinator food as well as attractive to hummingbirds. Several species of butterfly and moth larvae use it as a host plant.
The blue-gray clusters of berries, which give the plant its “grape” name, are a favorite food for birds, and while quite tart are edible for humans. Jam and even wine can be made from the fruit.
The native peoples used the plant for medicinal purposes, dye, and the berries for food, often mixed with sweeter varieties. The inner bark of the stems and particularly the roots are a deep yellow due to berberine, a bitter-tasting chemical also found in goldenseal, phellodendron, and tree turmeric.
Herbal companies have sustainably harvested the roots for years. You can get a permit from the U.S. Forest Service to gather it from public lands. With the advent of Covid a great demand for the extract has arisen.
This tale started when I first noticed discarded foliage from Oregon Grape in our church gardens, where I serve as buildings and grounds chairman. I didn’t think too much about it until I started seeing more scattered leaves about town. Then I noticed some processing of Oregon Grape stems, stripping of leaves at a local park and later at a nearby house. Seeing bundles of stalks and greenery stuffed into black plastic trash bags aroused my curiosity.
On taking a closer look in our church gardens I discovered that in all our plots of Oregon Grape, the largest stalks had been cut off close to the ground and in some of the more secluded locations, plants ripped from the ground.
The Sherlock Holmes in me got working and inquiries led me to a local buyer of various natural plant products. He was dismayed to hear that this was happening. He insists that his suppliers must harvest the plant legally. We worked out a plan that I will daub bright blue paint on the remaining stems which won’t hurt the plants but will let him know if there is a lazy gatherer who is content to rustle out of gardens rather than pull a permit and head to the woods.
On inquiring through the Forest Service on what steps it would need to harvest legally, I spoke first with Jed Hancock with the U.S. Forest Service. Before referring me to a colleague he did say that anecdotally a few bad apples are engaged in illegal harvesting both in the National Forest and from private land. “Market demands drive harvesting. For example, when the price per pound for wild mushrooms goes up we see an increase in mushroom hunters. The economic forces put pressure on the resources and scarcity begets regulation. Illegal harvesting hurts those who are trying to do the right thing.”
Jessica Southwick, Support Services Specialist for the Cottage Grove Ranger District, related the scope of forest products available for harvest as well as the types of permits available. Here are some of the resources that can be harvested via a permit: firewood, Christmas trees, post and poles, evergreen boughs, mushrooms, Beargrass, cones, greenery and transplants, Prince’s Pine, and edible berries.
There are three types of harvest: incidental (no permit needed) such as firewood used while camping or berries consumed while in the forest. Free-use permits allow for quantities up to 27 cubic feet of greenery (about half a pickup truck load), or 50 transplants 2 feet or less intended for personal use only. If there is any intention to sell or exchange the harvested products, the gatherer will need a commercial permit, which start at $20.
For those questioning why you need to go through the trouble of securing permission to use what belongs to us anyway, remember the mention of bad apples. When products are over-harvested in one area they won’t grow back very well. The idea is to spread out the gathering so that one area is not over-harvested and to do it in the least ecologically impactful way possible. In that way it will give the plants a chance to recover and be there for future gatherings. People who take all the mushrooms from a patch and don’t leave any to spore hurt their own and others’ future gathering.
Southwick encouraged those seeking permits to use the Forest Service website: fs.usda.gov. She said people can also be assisted by calling 541-767-5002.
In wanting to know more about why Oregon Grape is in such demand that it is disappearing from our church gardens I called Wise Woman Herbals, a local family-owned business in Creswell. Director and Certified Herbalist Kris Vaughan shared with me that it is indeed the Berberine in the roots and stalks of the Mahonia aquifolium that is what makes it valuable medicinally. With Goldenseal becoming scarce, Oregon Grape is a readily available substitute.
Vaughan described some of the health benefits of using the extracts from the plant: “It has strong antimicrobial qualities. Besides supporting the immune system it helps normalize the gut flora and aids digestion. It works well along with antibiotics and helps balance the system during bacterial or viral infections.”
She has seen an increased demand in the past two years for Oregon Grape products as well as elderberry extracts, which she views as being in response to the Covid outbreak. Wise Woman Herbals does all its processing at its FDA-inspected facility in Creswell and follows strict safety and quality control practices in manufacturing, using natural methods of processing herbal products.
Along with the increased demand for Mahonia products, Vaughan noted that harvesters showed up with pickups full of Oregon Grape trying to sell it to them. “We naturally weren’t interested as we are very careful to use locally farmed medicinal plants that are grown organically and biodynamically raised or ethically wildcrafted in our products. But it is concerning to see the plants just ripped out of the ground and thrown into the back of a truck to try and make a few bucks.”
Check out wisewomanberbals.com, or Creswell Wellness Center for products. Maybe the judicious use of a game camera could turn up the Oregon Grape rustlers. Play fair now guys!
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