Sunday, March 11, 2018

Plant Story--Creeping Hollygrape, Berberis repens

creeping hollygrape, Berberis repens

It is spreading all over my yard, but I can't get its name right.

I'm used to calling it Oregon grape, but in fact, the one on the Front Range in Colorado is not really Oregon grape. The usual Oregon grape is Berberis aquifolia. It is Berberis repens that is common in Colorado. Common names for this plant include creeping hollygrape, creeping barberry, creeping mahonia, and creeping Oregon grape.

Ok, you are already saying ...AND she has the genus wrong, they're Mahonia aquifolia and Mahonia repens.

Actually, I made a choice. Different authorities will give you different generic names for these plants. In the Flora of North America, Whittemore discusses the differences between the plants traditionally called Mahonia and those of Berberis and concludes there are too many species with intermediate characteristics to separate the two. (link). Berberis is the older name, so the plants called Mahonia become species of Berberis. The two Mahonia species I know are pretty different from the two barberries I know, so I was confortable with the distinction. However, there are 22 species of Berberis (including those called Mahonia) in North America and another 480 worldwide. Knowing more about the group leads to increasing confusion. I accept the argument that Mahonia is really Berberis, but many people continue to use Mahonia. If searching online, note that it is Mahonia aquifolium even though it is Berberis aquifolia -- Latin nouns, Berberis and Mahonia, have genders to which the adjective (aquifolium/aquifolia) must conform.

The name Berberis is from Latin term for the plant, berberi.
Oregon grape, Berberis aquiflolia
Oregon grape, Berberis aquiflolia
I like Oregon grape, Berberis aquifolia, also called hollyleaved barberry and tall Oregon grape.  The specific epithet, aquifolia, though looking like it means water-leaf, actually means holly-leaf (holly-like leaf) because the old Roman name for holly was aquifolium, which is explained as coming from acus, needle in Latin and folium, leaf, thus "needle leaf." The holly-like leaves are shiny and attractive though they can and do stab and scrape if you brush by in shorts or sandals.

Oregon grape grows in northern North America, on both the east and west coasts, but not across the plains or in Colorado (USDA map link). Creeping hollygrape, the one native to Colorado, has a range across the whole of western North America (USDA map link)

I have not planted creeping hollygrape in my yard but it keeps appearing. The plant has pretty yellow flowers and then fruits that look very much like grapes. The fruits are edible for people and birds love them. Birds have dropped them in many places in my yard and I can't find it in my heart to weed out the hollygrape if the spot isn't reserved for something else. A local landscaper recommended it for a deeply shaded path of mine. At the time I elected to plant periwinkle (Vinca) because the leaves aren't spiny, but as the hollygrape seeds in, I see it as nature excecuting the landscaper's design.

creeping hollygrape, Berberis repens
Creeping hollygrape, Berberis repens
Creeping hollygrape plants are evergreen, holding their leaves all winter. In winter the leaves darken.

creeping hollygrape, Berberis repens, in winter
Creeping hollygrape in winter
Summer colors are much brighter

creeping hollygrape, Berberis repens, summer
Creeping hollygrape in summer, with flowers
It is native. I've seen when it hiking the Colorado Front Range, like the one below, hanging on a bank. It grows well in shade and partial shade and, as you would expect from a Colorado native, can withstand quite a lot of drought.

creeping hollygrape, Berberis repens
Creeping hollygrape along a trail in the  Rocky Mountain foothills
creeping hollygrape, Berbers repent

The berries are blue-purple when ripe. Native Americans all across the West ate them, some raw, others made jam or roasted them. Other tribes crushed the fruits into a drink, which was drunk fresh (hollygrape juice!) or fermented. (link) The foraging books for the West report the berries have a distinct though not unpleasant taste but are quite tart. The Native American uses mostly included adding sugar as do recipes from the foraging books and websites (plantsforafutureeatheweeds).

Many writers of foraging books read other people's works and repeat what they read, as I do. Consequently, much of what you read can be people quoting each other, often without much direct personal experience of the subject. For example, it is easy to see that most of us read Moerman's Native American Ethnobotany and paraphrased it (see the original: Moerman). Creeping hollygrape has a large range and writers who convinced me that they had tasted it report considerable variation in palatabiity. I tried berries of the plants in my yard, raw. They were bland and uninteresting, so that I thought that if I made jam with them, it would just be an excuse to eat sugar. Other people's reports are more positive (see Morgan, Harrington, Elpel and Reed in the references).

Wild creeping hollygrape, Berberis repens
Creeping hollygrape, Berberis repens, in the Rocky Mountain foothills
Creeping hollygrape was widely used as a medicine by Native Americans (see Moerman!) and is currently recommended as a natural medicine although scientific evaluation of it has been limited.

In the Flora of North America, each of the entries on the barberry species notes whether it host Puccinia graminis or not, which is not a common sort of comment in a plant description. Puccinia is a fungus, the genus of wheat rusts. Creeping hollygrape is listed as resistant to Puccinia graminis, a good thing. The story of barberries and wheat rust must wait for another blog post.

Creeping hollygrape has holly-like leaves, pretty yellow flowers, and blue-purple fruits that are attractive to birds. Nursery sites call it one of the best ground covers for the West. Despite being called "creeping" it can get pretty tall - that's a five-foot fence beside it in the photo below.
creeping hollygrape, Berberis repens

It is supposed to be a good dye plant: the Blackfoot and Montana Indians made a strong yellow dye from it and the Great Basin Indains made an orange dye. I look forward to trying that.

As you can tell, this is a native low shrub that I am happy to have come creeping into my yard.

Comments and corrections welcome.

Note: spell-check corrects Berberis into Berbers and repens to repent, so if it says somewhere above Berbers repent...that's the opinion of spell-check, not the author.

"barberry | berberry, n.". OED Online. January 2018. Oxford University Press. link  Accessed March 11, 2018.
Elpel, T. J. and K. Reed. 2014. Foraging the Mountain West. HOPS Press, Pony Montana.
Harrington, H. D. 1967. Edible Native Plants of the Rocky Mountains. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Missouri Botanical Garden. Ilex aquifolium Missouri Plant Finder link Accessed March 7, 2018.
Moerman, D. E. 1998. Native American Ethnobotany. Timber Press, Portland, Oregon. Online at BRIT Press, Texas. Mahonia repenslink Accessed March 11, 2018 and earlier.
Morgan, L. B. 2013. Foraging the Rocky Mountains. A Falcon Guide. Globe Pequot Press, Guilford, Connecticut.
Whittemore,  A. T.  Berberis. Flora of North America. link Accessed March 5, 2018.

Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist

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