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Cedar Mill News
Volume 4, Issue 11


November 2006
Tall Oregon-grape

The Nature of Cedar Mill
The Barberry Family

Kyle Spinks, Natural Resources Technician, THPRD

Since it is part of our Oregon heritage, let’s look at this plant family a bit closer. Three different genera in the family are native to Oregon, and I’m sure you will be surprised by the relationship, because at first glance they seem to have very little in common.

The first genus is Mahonia and is named for Bernard McMahon, an American horticulturalist of the early pioneer days. This is the genus in which our state flower is listed; there are two species common in our area. The first is tall Oregon-grape, Mahonia aquifolium, and is a shrub that commonly grows in conifer or mixed conifer/deciduous forests. It is multi-stemmed and grows to about 5 feet tall, though it’s not uncommon to see plants much taller where growing conditions are prime. The leaflets of this species have a single central nerve, from which all other nerves radiate. Aquifolium is the Latin name for holly.

Inside-out flower

Dull Oregon-grape, Mahonia nervosa, usually grows to about 3 feet tall and is often seen as an understory shrub that dominates the forest floor. The leaflets of this species have 3 or more nerves that originate at the base of the leaf, thus nervosa. Both species have deep yellow sprays of flowers that give way to purplish berries that ripen in mid-summer. Native Americans ate the berries of these two shrubs and used the yellow roots for a source of yellow dye for some of the ornamentation that they used. The berries also make wonderful jelly, as long as plenty of sugar is used.
(Note that the common names of these two shrubs are hyphenated, indicating that they are not true members of the grape family. Many other common names are similarly hyphenated or compound for the same reason, for example Douglas-fir, Indian-plum, western redcedar, and poison-oak.)


Vanilla leaf – Achlys triphylla

The next genus is Achlys (pronounced AY-klis) and has only one species in our area: vanillaleaf or deerfoot, Achlys triphylla, which is very common throughout the West Hills. Achlys was the Greek goddess of night or obscurity and the name for this genus is thought to refer to the inconspicuous flowers. This is a diminutive forest herb, averaging about eight inches tall, that has three leaves (tri + phylla) and a small spike of creamy white flowers on a separate stem. Native Americans hung bundles of stems and leaves to ward off mosquitoes and other insects as well as to perfume the air with the scent of vanilla.

Vancouveria hexandra "duck-feet"

The last genus in our list is Vancouveria and is named for Captain George Vancouver, who explored the Northwest coast in the late 1700s. Vancouveria hexandra, or inside-out-flower, is another herb that you’ll find carpeting the Douglas-fir forest floor in the West Hills. This flower is aptly named, for when the plant is in full bloom it appears as if each small, pendulous flower has been turned inside out, with the white petals curved back away from the six (thus the name, ‘hexandra’), fully exposed stamens. The leaves of this plant look like a duck’s footprint, and usually grow three to a stem, though there may be several leaf stems arising from a single primary stem.

…and I’ll bet you thought Latin wasn’t fun!


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Publisher/Editor:Virginia Bruce
12110 NW West Rd
Portland, OR 97229