The Oregon grapes are deep purple and abundant in September in zone 3. This year we’ve had ample rain, and the grapes are plump, astringent, sour but satisfying. The bears have been helping themselves to the grapes on the trail, as evidenced by their seedy scat.
Inside my forest garden, behind a 10 foot, protected fence, the grapes are holding on the mahonia plants, getting plumper in the rain. This is the ideal time to harvest them for Oregon grape jelly. They will remain on the plant until they are harvested or eaten by wild creatures.
Oregon grapes are wild, purple fruit that grow on the Mahonia shrub or Oregon grape plant, a member of the Barberry family. The Oregon grape is a low sprawling shrub with waxy, dark green leaves that look like holly leaves.
There are three main species of Mahonia in British Columbia. The Oregon grape (Mahonia nervosa, formerly Berberis nervosa) grows to 2 feet tall, with long stems of opposite leaflets, sometimes showing 21 leaflets per stem. The Tall Mahonia (Mahonia aquifolium, formerly Berberis aquifolium) reaches 14 to 36 inches in height, with 5 to 11 leaflets per stem, while the creeping mahonia (Mahonia repens, formerly Berberis repens) grows 6 to 12 inches high with only 2 to 7 leaflets per stem. The Latin name “aquifolium” means “looks like holly”. The holly-like leaflets are the identifying characteristic of the species.
The whole plant is useful for herbal medicine. The berries are deep purple, sour, sharp-tasting, and rich in anthraquinones, the flavonoids that blue berries, bilberries, and elderberries are rich in. The leaves, bark, and root contain berberine, a yellow alkaloid that is the same antimicrobial compound found in goldenseal.
The Salish First Nations people used the berries to help with shell fish poisoning. While they are sour they are not as sharp as rhubarb or cranberries, requiring less sugar to make them into a very delicious jelly. The flavour is unique, like wild blueberries with a huckleberry after taste. Once you’ve made your first batch, you’ll be planning more into your fall foraging trips.
When you go to forage Oregon grapes wear gloves to protect your hands. The holly-like leaves are stiff adn the points are sharp and can scratch.
Oregon Grape Jelly
Yield 3 — 250ml jars of jelly
10 cups of Oregon grape berries
½ cup of water
2 cups of organic sugar
¼ cup lemon juice
¼ tsp. butter (optional)
½ package liquid pectin
Clean ripe Oregon grape berries under cold water. There’s no need to remove the stems from the berries. Simmer Oregon grapes in the water to release the juice. Mash the berries with a potato masher to get as much juice as possible. Simmer for 15 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat.
Line a colander with cheese cloth or use a jelly bag. Pour the fruit into the cheese cloth or jelly bag and allow it to drain naturally. Press to get as much juice as possible from the fruit. Note that this will cloud the jelly but it will result in a greater yield. I used a potato ricer for this last pressing.
Discard the pulp and stems and retain the juice.
Place 4 cups of juice into a saucepan. If you don’t have a full 4 cups of juice, top up with water to make a total of 4 cups. Bring to a simmer. Add sugar and lemon juice plus butter. The butter is to inhibit foaming as the juice simmers. Boil for one minute.
Add liquid pectin and return to a boil. Boil for 5 minutes or until the mixture reaches the jelly stage. The jelly will form a sheet as it falls from the spoon when it has reached the correct temperature.
Remove from the heat. Pour into sanitized jars and cap with a 2 part canning lid. Process in a boiling water bath for 5 minutes. Allow to cool right side up.
Remove the rings. Label. Store.
How to use Oregon Grape Jelly
Serve it on toast, pancakes, or scones
Serve as an accompaniment to lamb, beef, or venison
Top thumbprint cookies for festive baking
Use in place of cranberries, as a relish for turkey or goose
Gift it to your wild relatives
Hoard it in the back of the pantry – There’s only 3 jars!
Eat them to improve your vision, like you’d use bilberries or blueberries
What will you do with your jars of Oregon Grape Jelly?