Oregon Grape: Barbary Berry

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Berberis aquifolium in flower

Low plant with numerous tiny, yellow flowers

J. Agee photo. © 2002 by VIAs, Inc.

When Lewis wrote his description of this new plant in February of 1806 he remarked that he had not yet observed its fruit or flower, but the specimen he brought back, which he collected in April while en route up the Columbia River, does include Berberis aquifolium in flower.

Pictured above is the blossom of Berberis repens (creeping berberis), which would have been conspicuous on the forest floor of the Bitterroot Mountains in June, though none of the journalists mentioned it. A few of the late-summer fruits may still be seen in early spring if local birds haven't eaten them all. The hand-colored engraving of Berberis aquifolium from Pursh's Flora Americae Septentrionalis includes a blossom, though the yellow is much paler than normal—See next page.

Some botanists once considered B. aquifolium and B. repens to belong to the same species. However, the former grows up to six feet tall, and has shiny leaflets; the latter is seldom more than one foot tall, and has thin, dull green leaflets.

" . . . to the shores of Tripoli . . ."

Thomas Jefferson took close personal interest in the fortunes of the Expedition, and especially its discoveries in the field of natural history, but he had other important things on his presidential mind, too, such as piracy.

Soon after Jefferson's first inauguration, in the winter of 1800, the pasha of Tripoli declared war on the United States because he was receiving smaller ransom payments for the American sailors and ships he captured than were his fellow terrorists at Algiers. Jefferson responded by committing a small naval force to the Mediterranean Sea, empowered with a surge of patriotic support at home.

The critical point came in February of 1804 (while at Camp Dubois the Corps of Discovery was poising for departure). Lieutenant Stephen Decatur boldly sailed his ship Enterprise into the harbor at Tripoli and burned the U.S. frigate Philadelphia, to void its captors' demands for tribute, incidentally avenging his own brother's death with the blood of a few privateers. He carried off the whole engagement at the cost of only one man wounded.

It was, as Lord Nelson of the British Admiralty said, "the most bold and daring act of the age." Twenty-five-year-old Decatur instantly became an American hero of a stature and popular appeal that neither Lewis nor Clark attained for more than a hundred years.

His famous reply to a congratulatory toast inspired his nation for most of the 19th century: "Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong!"

Lewis never used the name Berberis aquifolium. It was Frederick Pursh who recognized the plant as belonging to the family Berberidaceae, and had sufficient knowledge and experience to be able to distinguish the species Lewis brought home, from B. vulgaris, or "common" Berberis.

But it is likely that, as Jefferson's secretary, Lewis had learned a great deal about the people whose name the genus in question already bore, and to whose homeland Berberis vulgaris was native.

Since the second millennium B.C. the Berbers had occupied the entire Mediterranean coast of Africa—Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya, the infamous Barbary Coast. From the 16th century, when ocean commerce began to increase, until the early 19th century, they were notorious for their piratical behavior1—See sidebar.

If Lewis learned anything about the ethnobotany of what he called "mountain holly" and many of his contemporaries called "barberry," he never wrote of it in his journals, so we can't say whether he knew that Indians knew the berries, though sour, could be eaten raw, or that their juice tastes much like grape juice, and makes excellent jelly. Or that the alkaloid (berberine) in the roots stimulates involuntary muscles, and a tea made of them could help delivery of a placenta. Or that herbalists of his own time—maybe including his own mother—considered it an excellent blood tonic, kidney medicine, diuretic, and antiseptic. Or that it could be used to doctor horses. He might have been especially glad to learn that the Salish Indians drank the tea for treatment of both gonorrhea and syphilis.

He might have heard that many Indians boiled the shredded bark of the plant to produce a brilliant yellow dye.

But he could not have known that more than a century in the future Berberis aquifolium would be declared the official flower of the State of Oregon.


Further Reading:

Jeff Hart, Montana: Native Plants and Early Peoples (Helena: Montana Historical Society, 1976), pp. 25-27.

Terry Willard, Edible and Medicinal Plants of the Rocky Mountains and Neighbouring Territories (Calgary, Alberta: Wild Rose College of Natural Healing, 1992), pp 98-99.