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The Oregon Grape Plant and the Potential Uses of Berberine

Linda Crampton has an honors degree in biology. She is interested in chemicals from other organisms and their benefits in the human body.

Beautiful berries of Oregon grape

Beautiful berries of Oregon grape

An Attractive and Interesting Plant

Oregon grape is an attractive evergreen shrub that is native to the west coast of North America. Its fruits are blue berries that are borne in clusters and look somewhat like grapes. Despite its name, the plant is unrelated to the true grapes. The berries are edible, but they are very sour and have large seeds. They are flavorful, however, and they can be used to make a delicious jam or jelly.

Oregon grape is often grown as an ornamental plant, since its shiny, holly-like leaves, yellow flowers, and blue berries are so beautiful. The plant is also valued because it attracts butterflies, bees, and birds. It's the state flower of Oregon.

The inner bark and roots of Oregon grape contain a bright yellow chemical called berberine. Berberine can act as a dye and is used to stain paper, silk, wool, leather, and wood. It may have health benefits as well. It kills bacteria in the lab and may be helpful for a range of health disorders, though further research is needed to clarify its action inside our bodies.

Shiny and attractive leaves

Shiny and attractive leaves

I generally find Oregon grape at the edge of wooded areas, unless it has been deliberately planted, although it also grows inside forests. The plant seems to like semi-open and disturbed habitats. It's a popular plant in landscaped areas near my home.

The Leaves of an Oregon Grape Plant

The scientific name of the tall Oregon grape is Mahonia aquifolium. Some scientists prefer to call it Berberis aquifolium. The species name "aquifolium" means "spiny leaves" in Latin.

The plant's stiff and leathery leaves are technically leaflets, since the leaves are pinnately compound. The shiny leaflets are flat and toothed. There are generally seven to nine of them in a leaf. They are arranged in two parallel rows and are joined to the leaf stem without a stalk. At the tip of the leaf there is a terminal leaflet that is joined to the stem with a stalk, however. There is a very noticeable vein down the center of each leaflet. These features can be seen in the photo above.

The leaflets are usually medium to dark green in color. They may have attractive red or bronze patches at times, such as when they are first produced, and they are often red in winter. The upper surface of each leaflet is waxy. The lower surface is not as shiny and is a paler green color. The leaves are used in floral arrangements because they stay in good condition for a long time after they're picked.

Flowers and Berries

Oregon grape generally flowers in April and produces fruit in summer. The flowers and the berries are vividly colored and beautiful. The plant grabs the attention when it's in bloom and when it bears berries. The flowers are bright yellow and are arranged in attractive clusters. Each flower has six yellow petals and six outer sepals of the same color. Six stamens (the male reproductive structures) and one pistil (the female structure) are located in the center of the flower.

Although the berries are tart, they taste good when sweetened. The correct identification of the plant is vital if the berries are collected for food. Identification is important whenever a person forages for food in the wild. The berries of some plants are poisonous. It's also important that Oregon grape berries are collected from an area that is free of pesticides and pollutants. Some berries should be left on the plant so that reproduction can occur.

An Oregon grape flower viewed under a stereo microscope

An Oregon grape flower viewed under a stereo microscope

Differences Between Oregon Grape and Holly

The holly plant (Ilex aquifolium) isn't closely related to the Oregon grape, but it has the same species name because it has prickly leaves. When there are no flowers or fruit present, holly is sometimes confused with Oregon grape.

Holly leaves aren't compound, and the spines on the leaves are more noticeable and less regular. Holly flowers are white and their berries are red. To confuse matters, Oregon grape is sometimes known as Oregon grape holly to distinguish it from true grapes.

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Holly leaves

Holly leaves

Berberine: A Plant Chemical of Interest

Berberine is a yellow alkaloid found in a variety of plants in addition to Oregon grape. Goldenseal, another native North American plant, also contains the chemical. In addition, berberine is present in the barberry, which is found in many countries, and in the Amur cork tree (or Amur corktree), which is native to Asia.

Plants containing berberine are used in Chinese traditional medicine and in the Ayurvedic herbal medicine of India. The chemical is also used as a medicine by some people in the west due to its purported health benefits.

Antibacterial Action of Berberine

Laboratory Tests

Some people claim that berberine helps many health problems, but at the moment there is insufficient scientific evidence for most of the claims. Multiple experiments suggest that the chemical is antibacterial, at least in lab equipment and lab animals. It hasn't been proven to work in humans yet, but the discoveries made so far are said to be "promising."

Although berberine does seem to kill bacteria, the methods by which it accomplishes this task are still being investigated. In some cases, it's thought to interfere with bacterial reproduction. In others, it seems to need the help of another substance in order to be effective.

The Importance of an MDR Inhibitor

A major problem for medicinal drug manufacturers is the fact that when antibacterial chemicals are absorbed by certain bacteria, the bacteria quickly release the chemicals before they are injured. This mechanism for removing the chemicals is known as a multidrug resistance pump (MDR pump) or a multidrug efflux pump.

Researchers have found that berberine is quickly "pumped" from some bacteria after it enters them, so it never gets a chance to kill the bacteria. In animal and isolated bacteria tests, the scientists have found that administering an MDR inhibitor at the same time as berberine enables the berberine to stay in the bacterial cells and become an effective antibiotic.

Berries and leaflets

Berries and leaflets

Possible Medicinal Uses of Berberine

Berberine may be helpful for some diseases. For example, preliminary research suggests that it may kill fungi and parasites, lower the blood glucose level in diabetics, improve heart function, dilate blood vessels, reduce inflammation, and treat mild psoriasis (when used in a cream containing Oregon grape but not isolated berberine). In lab dishes, berberine has killed some types of cancer cells.

More research is needed to discover whether berberine actually helps health disorders in people. Researchers sometimes discover that potentially medicinal chemicals work in lab equipment or in lab animals but not inside the human body. In cases where berberine is found to have a beneficial effect on a human health problem, researchers will need to identify the dose that is most effective and determine whether this dose has harmful side effects.

Safety Concerns and Precautions

Oregon grape and berberine supplements are sold in health stores. Since the benefits of berberine inside the body are still uncertain, it may or may not be a waste of time taking the supplements. The fact that they are typically formulated without an MDR inhibitor may be significant.

Berberine may be safe for most adults (but not for pregnant women) when taken in a moderate dose for a short period of time. You should ask your doctor's advice before using the substance. If you are under a doctor's care, it's very important to consult your doctor if you intend to take the supplement. It interferes with some prescribed medications, slowing their breakdown and elimination from the body. It's also very important that you check with your doctor if you have a serious pre-existing illness to see if he or she considers berberine to be safe for you.

Medicines from plants can be very useful, but we mustn't assume that because they are natural they are safe. Some plant chemicals can be dangerous inside the body.

Oregon grape leaves sometimes develop a beautiful red colour as they age.

Oregon grape leaves sometimes develop a beautiful red colour as they age.

Berberine Dangers in Pregnancy

Pregnant women should avoid taking berberine supplements because the chemical may travel through the placenta to the fetus. It may also be transferred to the baby when he or she nurses. In addition, berberine supplements should never be given to newborns.

Berberine can cause the buildup of bilirubin in a baby's body. Bilriubin is a yellow pigment made from the breakdown of hemoglobin (a red pigment) in old red blood cells. The liver normally eliminates bilirubin from the body, but berberine is thought to interfere with the liver's removal of the chemical. This may be a problem in a baby.

In babies, excess bilirubin may be deposited in the skin, causing jaundice. In addition, the bilirubin can cause a type of brain damage known as kernicterus. Adults can develop the condition, too, but it's more common in babies because their organs—including their liver—are still developing.

A Beautiful and Potentially Useful Species

Oregon grape is a beautiful plant to observe in the wild or in a garden. The wild plant is one of my favorite sights in the area where I live. I enjoy examining it during my walks throughout the year. If you have the patience (and have positively identified the plant), the berries can be used to make a lovely jam or jelly. Jam is made from the whole fruit while jelly is made from the juice.

Berberine is an interesting chemical, like many other substances that have been discovered in plants. It might be useful as a medical treatment once more information has been discovered about its action in our bodies. Additional research is necessary, though. I hope this research is done. There are intriguing indications that berberine could be a very helpful substance for some people.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

Questions & Answers

Question: How can I get an oregon grape plant?

Answer: Some plant nurseries sell Oregon grape plants. Some of these nurseries will deliver a plant to people living in other parts of the province, state, or country. The product may be sold in the form of a small plant or as seeds.

An Internet search should enable you to discover a suitable nursery or store where you live or one that will ship the plant to your area. Some places advertise the plant by its scientific name (Mahonia aquifolium). This is something to be aware of in your search.

© 2012 Linda Crampton


Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on September 01, 2014:

Hi, ologsinquito. Yes, it is wonderful that we are discovering so many useful chemicals in plants!

ologsinquito from USA on September 01, 2014:

It's highly likely that berberine has antibacterial properties, as many, many plants and plant extracts (essential oils) can kill viruses and bacteria, as demonstrated in a laboratory setting.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 22, 2013:

Hi, vibesites. Thank you for the comment and the votes! Oregon grape plants are common where I live, so I see them often.

vibesites from United States on April 22, 2013:

I've never heard of a grape plant but thanks to your hub I discover something new from mother nature. Voted up and interesting. :)

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on August 08, 2012:

Thanks for the visit and the comment, drbj. It does look like Oregon grape is another plant with health benefits!

drbj and sherry from south Florida on August 08, 2012:

Thanks, Alicia, for this useful information. My knowledge of grapes has been confined to the health benefits and taste of green vs. red grapes. Now I can add Oregon grape and the medicinal value of its berberine.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on August 08, 2012:

Thank you very much for the comment and the pin, GoodLady. I appreciate them both! It would be wonderful if Oregon grape and berberine were discovered to be so effective for health that they became part of mainstream medical treatments.

Penelope Hart from Rome, Italy on August 08, 2012:

Love your beautiful photos and superb videos. It is a very handsome plant and I do wonder if it's health benefits will prove truly useful one day, wouldn't that be neat? It's such a verdant green. Pinning you Hub! Good Hub.

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