Plant of the day: tall Oregon grape

I’ve been visiting Seattle this week, a city where I spent my college years and first learned botany. It’s been a treat to revisit the landscape of the Pacific Northwest–including the plants. Some are old friends who I haven’t seen for years; others are common down in California as well.

Tall Oregon grape (Berberis aquifolium) is one that falls in the middle. This scrubby shrub of the forest understory is distinguished by glossy pointed leaflets that grow 5 to 9 in each sprig; in the fall some of them may turn red.

It’s a common sight in the Pacific Northwest. But though it technically grows across most of the west coast (including almost all counties in California, according to CalFlora) I have never seen it in the Bay Area. And Marin is one of the only counties in the state that does not have any records of this species at ALL–though its similar-looking cousin, dull Oregon grape, does grow here. (This species, B. nervosa, has 9 to 19 leaflets).

The purple berries are tart; some people make them into jelly or wine–generally mixed with other (sweeter) fruit. The inside layer of the bark is brilliant yellow and can be used to make a dye.

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