The Oregon Grape Plant and the Uses of Berberine

Beautiful berries
Beautiful berries | Source

The Oregon Grape

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 flavourful, however, and 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, bright 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.

Shiny and attractive leaves
Shiny and attractive leaves | Source

I generally find Oregon grape at the edge of wooded areas, although it also grows inside forests. The plant seems to like semi-open and disturbed habitats.

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 stiff leathery leaves of Oregon grape are technically leaflets, since the leaves are pinnately compound. The 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. There is a very noticeable vein down the center of each leaflet.

The leaflets are usually medium to dark green in colour. 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 colour. The leaves are used in floral arrangements because they stay in good condition for a long time after they're picked.

Oregon Grape in Bloom

Flowers and Berries

The flowers and berries of Oregon grape are vividly coloured and beautiful. The plant is very noticeable when it's in bloom or 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 colour. Six stamens (the male reproductive structures) and one pistil (the female structure) are located in the centre 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 being collected for food. It's also important that the berries are collected from an area that is free of pesticides or pollutants.

An Oregon grape flower viewed under a stereo microscope
An Oregon grape flower viewed under a stereo microscope | Source

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, though, Oregon grape is sometimes known as Oregon grape holly to distinguish it from true grapes.

Holly leaves
Holly leaves | Source

A 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. Berberine is also used as a medicine by some people in the west.

Oregon grape flowers
Oregon grape flowers | Source

Antibacterial Action of Berberine

Laboratory Tests

There are claims that berberine helps many health problems, but at the moment there is insufficient scientific evidence for most of these claims. However, 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 other cases 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).

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. However, 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 | Source

Potential 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 confirm whether berberine actually helps health disorders. 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 does have a beneficial effect on a human health problem, researchers need to determine whether if it has harmful side effects.

Growing Oregon Grape in a Garden

Safety and Cautions

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 is thought to be safe for most adults when taken in a moderate dose for a short period of time. However, if you are under a doctor's care, you should consult your doctor if you intend to take the supplement. It interferes with some prescribed medications, slowing their breakdown and elimination from the body. You should also 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. | Source

Berberine 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 it feeds. 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 believed to interfere with the liver's breakdown of the bilirubin. The bilirubin is then deposited in the skin, causing jaundice. In a baby, the excess bilirubin can cause a type of brain damage called kernicterus.

Oregon grape jelly
Oregon grape jelly | Source

A Beautiful and Useful Plant

Oregon grape is a beautiful plant to observe in the wild or in a garden. The wild plant is one of my favourite sights in the area where I live. If you have the patience (and have positively identified the plant), the berries can be used to make a lovely jam or jelly.

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

© 2012 Linda Crampton

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Comments 8 comments

GoodLady profile image

GoodLady 4 years ago from Rome, Italy

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.

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

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.

drbj profile image

drbj 4 years ago from south Florida

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.

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

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

vibesites profile image

vibesites 3 years ago from United States

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

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

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

ologsinquito profile image

ologsinquito 2 years ago from USA

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.

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

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

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