The berries I just noticed overhanging a parkade ramp in a Fairview back alley are blue but certainly aren’t blueberries—they have the same dusty blue ski,n but that’s the only similarity.
I could be wrong but I think they might be so-called Oregon grapes, known less for their taste and more for their potentially powerful medicinal properties.
Not blueberries and not really grapes either
These berries in the alley of the 1500 block between 15th and 16th Avenue are growing too high up to be blueberries, which grow on bushes close to the ground, and they’re smaller and a lot more tart.
They’re the right size to be Oregon grapes. They look the same, have the same kind of spiky leaves, contain the same big seeds, and are lip-puckering tart—just like Oregon grapes.
The Oregon grape (or Oregon-grape, or Mahonia aquifolium) is an evergreen shrub that grows either short or tall, and is common to the Pacific Northwest of North America.
The fruit are actually berries and are preceded by yellow blossoms, which are the official floral emblem of the state of Oregon.
The berries are not poisonous, just exceptionally sour. With enough sugar, they’re apparently tasty, like rhubarb.
A bitter pill to swallow
While Pacific Northwest aboriginal peoples were known to eat Oregon grape berries in small quantities, particularly mixed with sweeter fruits, the principal value of the plant was medicinal.
The root and berries of the Oregon grape have been used to treat dyspepsia and inflammatory skin diseases such as eczema and psoriasis. Modern studies have shown that the plant has notable antimicrobial properties.
Herbal websites can get pretty excited about the Oregon grape. One site goes so far as to suggest its strong antimicrobial properties could “save the world” from “superbugs” such as MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), a serious staph infection that is resistant to pharmaceutical antibiotics.
Nature to the rescue and not a moment too soon
Last year, Maclean’s magazine reported that one in 12 adults in Canadian hospitals were infected or “colonized” by a superbug like MRSA.
I’ve seen chronic MRSA infection in intravenous drug users. It’s an awful thing that can only ever be held at bay—just bubbling below the surface, waiting for a moment of weakness when it can overwhelm the immune system.
If Oregon grape could help, that would be a berry, berry, good thing.