Holly or Oregon Grape?

Save the holly for the holidays

Words Breanne Rogers

For the savvy forager, the natural habitats of the West Coast offer a plethora of wild plants and herbs that can be used to treat minor medical issues or to provide a source of food. But sometimes the vegetation in the verdant forests and trails of the Pacific Northwest can look the same, as is the case with European holly and Oregon grape. Mistaking one for the other can have some uncomfortable consequences, so it’s best to be certain which plant is which.

When you think of holly, it is likely an image of European holly that comes to mind. European holly (Ilex aquifolium) is an evergreen and deciduous plant that was likely brought over to North America by the early European settlers. The shrubs and trees have distinctive dark green foliage with spiny leaves that are slightly lighter in colour underneath. It is most commonly used for aesthetic purposes in gardens and parks, and is a staple in the wreaths and garlands of Christmas decorations. The plant is not, however, a source for food for humans; though not fatal, the berries can be difficult for humans to digest, and so their consumption in large quantities can cause nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea. Unfortunately this holly is sometimes mistaken for Oregon grape.

Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium) is the state flower for Oregon, and grows primarily in western North America. Though the plant is not classified as a holly, its leaves are very similar in shape and colour to those of European holly and many other plants in the Aquifoliaceae family: shiny, lush green, spiny, and curved into a number of pointed tips.

Oregon grape, unlike European holly, can be a source of food. Many Indigenous peoples, including the Kwakwaka’wakw, Secwepemc, Squamish, and Straits Salish, have incorporated the berries into their diets, often mixed with sweeter fruits. The juice has occasionally been used to make wine, though the berries are very tart in flavour. For medicinal purposes, herbalists often tout the Oregon grape as an invaluable source for natural remedies. It can be used to ease internal discomforts such as indigestion, stomach ulcers, heartburn, and upset stomach, and its root has similar properties to goldenseal. It can also be used topically in homeopathic creams and salves as a way to treat skin conditions such as psoriasis and eczema.

The primary differentiating factor between the two is each plant’s respective flowers and berries. In the spring and summer months, European holly blooms with dull white flowers, each with four petals. Oregon grape, by contrast, blooms in the spring with flowers in a bright, cheerful yellow. Beginning around October, European holly has clusters of the rich, cherry-red berries that make it popular for festive decorating. Oregon grape, however, has deep purplish-blue berries that are similar in colour to the traditional grapes that give the plant its name. European holly is also typically found higher above the ground than Oregon grape; the trees of European holly usually grow to be four to eight metres high, while shrubs of Oregon grape are generally less than one metre tall.

Confusing European holly for Oregon grape is an easy mistake to make, but it can cause unwary foragers unnecessary trouble; know the plants’ physical differences, and save the holly for the holidays.