Nothing makes an amateur forager feel more like a rock star than passing some scrumpy-looking bush in the neighbour’s yard and telling your friends, “See that there… You can eat that.” And you probably have a friend or two who’s down to try anything and immediately pops whatever berry you just pointed out into their mouth.
“Bleeeeaagggh! Why would anyone want to eat this!?” comes the response, followed by the look of betrayal. “This tastes nothing like a ripe blackberry. It’s sour! Why did I listen to you? You’re not a rock star! What if this is poison?” It is a scene we foragers know all too well… I’ve had it happen a couple of times to me and still recall the sting of recrimination and weird looks. *laughs*and it always seems to be thanks to Oregon grape.
This widely-distributed, easily identifiable wild shrub is everywhere up and down the West coast from Alaska to California. It’s been a staple food source for First Nations people in temperate areas like Washington, Oregon (where it’s the state flower) Southern BC and our very own Vancouver Island. It grows in ditches, along roads and footpaths and in the deep woods surrounded by salal, ferns and fir trees. It’s also recently become popular as a decorative shrub and can be found loitering in parking lots or other public landscaping.
The bush can grow between three and five feet tall with long grayish-brown stalks and stiff, serrated green/red leaves similar to holly. In fact, it’s sometimes referred to as “Oregon Hollygrape” despite not being related to either grapes or holly. The “grapes” grow from little yellow flowers and ripen from July through September. These berries will grow through a multitude of colours (green, yellow, red and purple) before settling on a ghostly light blue when completely ripe.
If you are interested in adding Oregon Grape to your checklist of West coast foragibles I’ve got good news and bad news fo ‘ya: The good news is thanks to the grape’s unique shade of blue and spiny leaves it’s pretty hard to confuse it with any other wild shrubbery and nothing poisonous lives in its ecosystem. So it’s an easy ID and no-stress foraging adventure, perfect for novices.
The bad news is… Well, I’ll get to that after we gear up.
What you will need to Forage for Oregon Grape
- Disposable Gloves – Oregon grapes pack a lot of juice into a tiny, easily puncturable-package. Avoid staining your hands purple by rolling on some disposable protection.
- Long Sleeve Shirt – Speaking of protection! Those holly-like leaves are very sharp and can leave all kinds of jagged cuts on your forearms as you reach for the good stuff. I know it’s hot out, but you might regret that tank-top.
- Container – A plastic Ziplock container with a tight-fitting lid and a bit of paper towel lining the inside will be ideal for storing your berries.
The clusters of grapes tend to dangle right at eye level and are easily removed from their stalk with a bit of a tug. I’ve found that if you gather a couple in between each of your fingers and gently pull down the line they pop right off and into your container. In no time you’ll have quite a few berries for very little work.
Now it’s time for the bad news… Oregon grapes are sour… Really sour. Cause your eyes to water and your face to suck up into a black hole sour. The kind of sour that makes you wonder why anyone thought to try and eat these berries in the first place. And if you do happen to pop one in your mouth you could be forgiven for thinking this is just some sick joke a fellow forager (like yours truly) is playing on you. But trust me; there is a method to this madness.
I brought my container full of grapes home and washed them thoroughly with cold water to get rid of the dirt and bugs that hitched a ride. Once I was satisfied that all the critters were gone I fired up a large pot of water on the stove (approx. 3 cups/750ml) and melted 2 cups (400g) of cane sugar into it. My entire batch of grapes (approx. 2 ¼ lbs./1 kg) went into the pot and came to a simmer. After ten minutes the grapes had begun to break down and turned a powerful purple colour ala Blackberries. I strained the liquid into jars and left ‘em to cool on the kitchen table.
Cooking dramatically changes the taste of the grapes. Gone are the pucker-punching qualities in favor of a subtle herbaceousness and yes, even a slight sweetness. My wife (who had accused me of poisoning her with Oregon grapes years ago) tasted the syrup on the kitchen table while I was in another room and later told me it, “was the best Blackberry syrup she’d ever had!”
This syrup can be used a number of ways: Its sweetness works with savoury dishes like pork and duck or with sweets like panna cotta or ice cream. A chicken breast stuffed with goat cheese could use a couple dashes to create something really special!
The slight sourness that still remains made me think of treating it like a shrub (a cocktail term for a berry and vinegar syrup) and mixing it up with some vodka or gin. After a couple glasses of Oregon Grape grape-infused cocktails I’m sure to feel like a foraging rock star again!