Published: April 14, 2021

Oregon grape (Mahonia repens) is a low, evergreen shrub of dry habitats in the forests and mountains of Colorado, up to 10,000 feet. Mahonia repens is a member of the Barberry family, a group known to have lived in our region—found as far north as British Columbia down to western Texas—for over 30 million years1!  

The epithet repens refers to the creeping habit of its underground stems (or rhizomes). Plant species that are rhizomatous are also drought and fire resistant, as their stems establish deep under the soil; Oregon grapesOregon grape are often one of the first plants to resprout in a burn scar area2. The rhizomes contain the alkaloid ‘berberis,’ the active ingredient in Native tonics used to treat a variety of stomach, liver, and digestive disorders4. Berberis plants produce a chemical called berberine, a compound that increases septic and bacterial resistances, in their leaves and roots, making them effective in healing minor wounds3. Not only is it functional, but the Oregon grape’s blooming clusters of bright yellow flowers are one of the earliest signs of spring in the Colorado foothills. Their bright hues make them popular ornamental plants in gardens, and in the wild, Oregon grapes and leaves are plants for foragers like deer and elk, mountain goats, birds, bighorn sheep, moose, and bears. 

Just as the early blooming flowers of Mahonia are a harbinger of spring, large piles of bear scat filled with its ripe berries are a sure sign that fall is coming. Ripened berries usher in magnificent fall foliage in crimson red. Many foraging animal species, bears especially, play important roles in the propagation of Oregon grapes as they forage throughout Boulder’s foothills and into mountain regions5. Not only do bears spread Oregon grape seeds via their scat, the berries add important vitamin c to their pre-hibernation diet! Bears are sometimes thought to be one of the earliest sources for human knowledge of plant remedies, so perhaps it is fitting that they seem to enjoy the berries of the medicinal plant as they prepare for hibernation.  

  1. TWC Staff, 2020. Mahonia repens (Creeping barberry). Native Plants of North America. 
  1. Ulev, Elena D., 2006. Mahonia repens. In: Fire Effects Information System [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture. 
  1. Stermiz, F., Lorenz, P., Tawara, J., Zenewicz, L., 2000. Synergy in A Medicinal Plant; Antimicrobial Action of Berberine Potentiated by 5’-Methocydynocarpins, A Multidrug Pump Inhibitor. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 97(4), 1433-1437. 
  1. Chesnut, V.K., 1902. Plants used by the Indians of Mendocino County, California. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Division of Botany.  
  1. Auger, J., Meyer, S., Black, H., 2002. Are American Black Bears (Ursus americanus) Legitimate Seed Dispersers for Fleshy-fruited Shrubs? The American Midland Naturalist, 147(2), 352-367.