This week’s plant for #WildEdibleWednesday is Mahonia beali, or the Leatherleaf Mahonia. Often overlooked as a bland landscape plant or an semi-invasive shrub, this is, in fact, a valuable medicinal plant with a fascinating backstory that involves plant smuggling and China’s Opium Wars. For me, this was another plant that I’d seen all my life without knowing what it was. Since it isn’t native, it wasn’t part of the traditional Appalachian herbal medicine cabinet, and I was never taught about it as a child. And I’m going to bet it’s the same for you – if you live in the South, you probably see this plant nearly every day without realizing it. Botanists argue over where Mahonia belongs in plant taxonomy. Some classify it as a species of Barberry and classify it in the genus Berberis, while others give it (and its two dozen or so close relatives) their own genus. While this may seem irrelevant to most of us, this is the kind of stuff that starts knock-down, drag-out ugly bar fights among taxonomists.
Leatherleaf Mahonia is an upright, branching shrub that gets about 6’ tall and 6’ across at its largest. Small specimens have a single stem, larger shrubs have multiple stems branching from a single base. Mahonia is broadleaf evergreen, making it a true winter wild edible – or medicinal as the case may be. It has rather non-descript smooth light gray bark that may gain some slight texture in the largest examples. Mahonia blooms in late winter or early spring depending on climate, with long fingers of striking yellow blooms. This makes them easy to spot, as they stand out prominently against the drab winter woods. After the plant blooms, it sets fruit in late April or early May, which we’ll talk about shortly. It’s usually easiest to identify Mahonia by its leaves, as they’re present all year long. What look like leaves are actually leaflets. The leaves themselves branch straight out from the stem, and dozens of symmetrically paired individual leaflets are attached to that leaf stem. Leaves are 1”-2” long, dark green, thick, and waxy. Each leaf vein terminates in a sharp thorn, with 5-7 thorns per leaf. This final characteristic leads to the most cases of misidentification, as it’s easy for a casual observer to get Mahonia mixed up with American Holly. While the leaves do look similar and both plants are broadleaf evergreens, that’s where the similarity ends. Holly leaves are true leaves, not leaflets. Holly is a tree, and grows from a single trunk with alternating branches. Holly has bright red berries, Mahonia does not. However, be absolutely certain before you use either species. American Holly is poisonous when misused, especially the berries. As we always say, don’t eat a plant or use it medicinally unless you can positively identify it without a doubt. Like I mentioned in the beginning, Leatherleaf Mahonia is not a native plant in the Eastern Woodlands. It’s native to the lush temperate forests of Eastern China, and how it came to be here is a pretty fascinating story, which we’ll talk about in a minute. But suffice to say, it’s become widely naturalized throughout the South, even to the point of being invasive in some areas. Widely planted as a landscaping shrub in decades past, birds ate the seeds and pooped them out in an airdrop campaign all over the South. It’s illegal to plant Mahonia in Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, and Tennessee, as well as Michigan for some reason. Obviously this plant is not picky about habitat, but it prefers sunny, open woods underneath established hardwoods. It likes rich soil and plenty of moisture, but doesn’t like to get its feet wet. You’ll most often find it in second-growth cove forests, often near the edges. Remember, this plant is spread by birds, and that’s where the birds hang out.
Before we talk about Leatherleaf Mahonia’s edible characteristics, it should be said that there’s a native Mahonia species in North America, and it’s very well known among foragers and survivalists on the West Coast. M. aquifolium, commonly known as Oregon Grape, is well-loved by the pioneer descendants of the Pacific Northwest as an ingredient in jellies, pies, jams, juice, etc. In fact, I had a hard time finding information on the Leatherleaf Mahonia because of all the articles out there about Oregon Grape. Happily, both species can be used almost interchangeably. Oregon Grape is preferable if you can find it, but good luck with that in Georgia. Leatherleaf Mahonia bears long, string-like racemes of dark purple fruit in early to mid spring. These fruits are egg shaped and about an inch long. They’re extremely high in vitamin C and have a tart flavor that’s great for cooking with. They’re very seedy, but if you’re mashing them up and straining them for jelly or jam, that doesn’t really matter. They’re valuable as a wilderness survival food, as they’re bearing when few other fruits are available and are high in the simple carbohydrates necessary to keep you going while you hunt or gather other resources. The only disadvantage is that birds love them more than just about any other fruit, so if you see them, grab them. They might not be there when you get back. Be advised, however, that consumption of these berries in large quantities (pounds of them, for most people), can have ill effects such as lethargy, low blood pressure, slowed heart rate, and vomiting due to a compound called berberine that’s present in the seeds. Like any other plant, if you’ve never eaten it before, please use common sense and try a small sample to see how your body responds.
Medicinally, Mahonia is valuable for treating a wide range of common ailments. That same compound called berberine, which when consumed from the seeds can cause ill effects, is medicinal when used with the correct dosage and delivery method. The primary way of using Mahonia medicinally is with a decoction of the roots, inner bark, or dried leaves. All parts of the plant contain berberine, so it doesn’t matter much what Mahonia pieces you use to make your decoctions. Like any other decoction, boil it down for twenty minutes or so until the water is reduced by half, and then add half that amount of water back again. Once it’s done, this decoction is useful for treating almost any sort of internal bacterial infection, be it bacterial bronchitis, pneumonia, sinus infections, strep throat, or even tuberculosis. Additionally, it can be used for treating bacterial infections of the gut, such as dysentery, food poisoning, or other stomach upset. The berberine acts as a gentle natural antibiotic, helping kill off the offending microbes and helping the immune system do its job. This decoction is also high in tannins, which help reduce fevers and inflammation, so it’s great for strained muscles, arthritis pain, and the body aches associated with colds and fevers.
For such an overlooked shrub, Mahonia actually has a pretty interesting backstory. In the Victorian era, Europeans (and to some extent, Americans) were exploring previously untouched corners of the globe and bringing home whatever they could find. Cultivating a scientific collection quickly became a status symbol among the upper class. Aristocrats and wealthy merchants were constantly trying to one-up each other with who had the most exotic specimens, and they were willing to pay. Enough that there were people who were employed to go around the world and collect plants, and the more exotic the plant and the more dangerous the expedition, the bigger the payoff. While these men were technically botanists, they were also badass Indiana Jones types who arranged daring raids into forbidden kingdoms and hostile tribal domains in order to bring back the rarest of the rare. The most famous of these men was undoubtedly Robert Fortune. Fortune was a plant spy who infiltrated the Chinese mainland, which was then closed off to Westerners. Disguised as a Chinese peasant, he worked as a botanical mercenary in this forbidden land for many years, risking death or torture had he been discovered. His most famous act literally changed history, he smuggled tea plants (and the secrets of growing and harvesting them) out of China and into the hands of the British East India Company, who planted them in India and broke the Chinese monopoly on tea. This was a crack in the armor of imperial China, which eventually led to the Opium Wars and the fall of the thousand-year-old Chinese royal dynasty. However, on one of his more routine missions, he was commissioned to hunt down new plants for Thomas Beale, the wealthy British consul in Shanghai. The story goes that Fortune saw a plant of interest growing inside the walled garden of a Chinese nobleman in Peking. He waited until the nobleman had left on a trip, climbed the wall, yanked the plant out of the ground, and snuck it back to Shanghai, where he named it after his patron: Mahonia beali. From there, it grew popular with both British and American gardeners… it never naturalized in Britain (probably too cold), but it took off in the States. You’ll still see it planted in the landscape around older homes, but it’s mostly fallen out of favor due to its invasiveness. But whenever you’re walking through the winter woods and see one of these striking, thorny shrubs, you’ll know the story of how a plant collector risked his life for it to end up there – and how to use it for your benefit.
What about you? Have you ever eaten Mahonia or Oregon Grape? Do you know of any other uses for it? Tell us in the comments!