Creeping Oregon Grape

creeping oregon grape

The berries of the creeping Oregon grape are attractive and animals find them appealing, but they are bitter to eat raw. They are best made into jelly with the addition of a lot of sugar.

The second week of November was spectacular, a brief return to the warmer days of October. I spent most of the week wandering in the woods enjoying every minute. Granted, all the trees and shrubs had lost their leaves so it wasn’t exactly like October, but with temperatures in the mid-forties and just remnants of an earlier snow, it was dang close.

I said that all the trees and shrubs had lost their leaves, but that wasn’t exactly correct. There is one plant, common on the forest floor, that still has leaves, creeping Oregon grape.

Many years ago, I decided not to routinely include the scientific names of plants and animals in these columns as I felt that they contributed little to the discussion. That is not the case here. A discussion of the scientific name of this plant is appropriate for several reasons. First, I learned this plant in college as Mahonia repens. However, as of 2023, the vast majority of botanists have declared that the genus of this species is Berberis while the specific name, repens, remains the same. That switch takes it out of the genus that houses tall Oregon grape or holly-leafed barberry, Mahonia aquifolium, the state flower of Oregon, a common wildland plant in coastal forests and a popular cultivated plant. This is also a plant whose parts are sold in a variety of forms as a nutritional supplement.

But enough about that other plant, let’s talk about the creeping Oregon grape, also known as creeping barberry. This is one of the most common plants in much of the interior West for one good reason—tolerance. It tolerates full sun to full shade, a wide range of soil textures and pH’s (though not wet or saline soils), a wide range of elevations (3,500 to 10,000 feet), dry conditions, long winters and a huge variety of plant associations.

Creeping Oregon grape is a perennial plant. It rarely gets over 12 inches tall, and it reproduces by seed and vegetatively by rhizome sprouts. It will spread laterally, hence the moniker, creeping, making it a good groundcover in gardens.

Creeping Oregon grape is also evergreen, the reason that this little plant still has its leaves in November. The leaves may change color, taking on a purple or red hue during winter, but they are still there in the spring when chlorophyll makes the leaves green again.

This plant is also easy to recognize. The leaves are pinnately compound, meaning that leaflets are arranged opposite each other along a stalk much like barbs on a feather shaft. The leaflets are oval with spine-tipped teeth along the margins, similar to holly. In the springtime it produces racemes of yellow flowers which turn into round blue berries.

The blue berries are edible in a sense. They are bitter and, in my experience, they are not palatable raw. However, they do make a good jelly if you add enough sugar. Native Americans used the inner bark to make a permanent yellow dye.

Building on last week’s column, creeping Oregon grape is a fire survivor. Even if the shallow rhizomes are destroyed, deeper ones will survive and quickly resprout. In a fire in Cascade Canyon in Grand Teton National Park in 1974, creeping Oregon grape was considered “one of the most important postfire understory species in the severely burned area.”

This diminutive plant is a reminder that good things often come in small packages. Despite its small size, it has a large place in most interior West ecosystems. In addition, it is proof that an attitude of tolerance is key to success.


Help Idaho Wildlife

When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.

C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles! 

See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live. 

And tell them that you heard about it from!

Wildlife License Plates

Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.

No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.

Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.

Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program.

I think it is time we let the Legislature know that Idahoan support wildlife funding and that we would like to see these generic plates come to fruition.

"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson

That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.

Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.

Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.

Readers Write:

"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman

"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.

To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version 


Copies are also available at:

Post Register

Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)

Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls

Harriman State Park, Island Park

Museum of Idaho

Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming

Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah

Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho