Top Photo: Mahonia buds, blossoms, and leaves on Dinosaur Trail.

Mahonia goes by the names Oregon grape, grape holly, mountain grape or just plain Mahonia among others. Grape because the ripe fruit has a visual similarity to grapes. Holly, because the leaves resemble holly leaves.

The name Mahonia is the binomial genus name of this and several other west coast broadleaved plants. It’s derived from Bernard McMahon (Mahon-ia) horticulturist, author, and one of the stewards of the Lewis and Clark Expedition’s plant collections.

Just starting to blossom.

December into January is when I expect to see Mahonia’s bright yellow inflorescences atop the spiky-leaved evergreen plant lining the path of the Dinosaur Trail. The blooming of the individual flowers progresses from bottom to top of the raceme.

Top of the raceme, with berries below blossoms.
Young berries fill the raceme.

Almost immediately afterward, where flowers once were, and if they had been pollenated by the various and hardy local bees and flies, tiny green berries appear. As long as there isn’t a heavy ice storm the berries will become juicy, purple, and tasty treats for the birds arriving from points south in April.

Note berries beneath flowers.

The 1/2″ berries are rather bitter to us humans but can be made into jam, put enough sugar into anything and they’ll eat it.

Berries ripen. Note slight purple blush on some of the berries.

It’s not a grape, and it’s not a holly. It belongs to the barberry family of which there are over 400 – 700 species, depending on which resource is referenced.

Though they’re edible, they taste bitter. They’re meant to be jammed.

Mahonia as a genus is native to Asia, and the Pacific Northwest. The Asian variety (Mahonia bealei) is the one most people are familiar with. It’s planted in many gardens across the country. It’s considered invasive. This is what we apparently have growing on the Dinosaur trail and other locations around campus.

I’ve seen this plant away from the museum growing by itself in woods far from it’s mother plant. The seed was apparently deposited by berry-eating birds after having passed through their digestive system.

If there are degrees of invasiveness, Mahonia is not at the top of the list. It’s certainly not in the same category as Japanese honeysuckle, stiltgrass, multiflora rose or privet. But take care, if you decide to plant it in your garden it will probably volunteer elsewhere in the vicinity, with a little help from the birds.

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