Oregon Grape Root / Mahonia species

Mahonia aquifolium

Mahonia species is found in herbal medical practice in several places around the world. The mahonia species from the Pacific Northwestern United States and Canada is home to what is probably the most popularly used of these species, Mahonia aquifolium. The yellow to orange root, especially the root back, contains berberine an alkaloid known to be antibacterial and antifungal. The root or its bark is can be prepared as a tea, decoction, or tincture and applied both internally and externally. Internally it is used to treat a variety of ailments including but not limited to skin conditions such as psoriasis, liver ailments, digestive ailments, and many other illnesses associated with what is considered “heat” in Chinese medicine. This “heat” may be in the form of an infection or simple inflammation.

In China there are several species used in essentially the same why as it is used in the West.

For more on how to use this plant from the Chinese perspective you can either look at Western Herbs According to Traditional Chinese Medicine: A Practitioners Guide by Thomas Avery Garran, or you can check out our up-coming series Western Herbs In Chinese Medicine for insights into this and many other excellent Western herbs that can and are being integrated into Chinese Medicine.

Mahonia genus is widely used in herbal medicine. This little up-date to the above blog is to try to give a little perspective on a few of the species within this genus by illustrating a number of different ways to employ the medicinal in clinical practice.

I’ll start with a Chinese species, then discuss some specific application of a group of Western species. The herb Gong Lao Mu (功劳木) or Shi Da Gong Lao (十大功劳) represents two species of Mahonia found in China. Both species are common throughout most of the southern half of China from Fujian west to Sichuan and Yunnan provinces. These herbs are both also somewhat common cultivars, both in China and abroad. Mahonia bealei (Fort.) Carr.  is known as Kuo Ye Shi Da Gong Lao (阔叶十大功劳). Mahonia fortune (Lindl.) Fedde  is known as Xi Ye Shi Da Gong Lao (细叶十大功劳). The difference in the names of the individual plants (notice only the first character is different in the names) represents the key to identification by simply looking at the plant. The second character “ye 叶” is the character for leaf, so right away we know there is a difference in the leaves of these plants. M. bealei is named with “kuo 阔,” which means “wide,” while M. fortune is named “xi 细,” which means “thin.” Not only are M. bealei’s wider, but it can grow to approximately twice the size (1-4m) of M. fortune, which stays between 1-2 meters in height. In both cases the stem or stem bark is what is used.

These herbs are not used far out of their growing regions. The flavor and nature of these herbs, like other species of Mahonia, is bit他er and cool to cold. They are said to enter the heart and liver channels and have the following actions:

Clear heat, dry dampness, resolve toxin

Clear the lung and stop consumption cough

Clear heart and stomach fire, resolve toxin

Clear heat, disinhibit dampness, resolve toxin

The conditions it treats is far ranging from in the lung with cough, liver heat disease, diarrhea, jaundice, red-swollen eyes, to externally for various skin diseases and burns.

I found an interesting formula in the Fu Jian Journal of Medicinal Plants for ear-ache. Although I have not tried this formula it appears to be a somewhat elegant combination of plants, a mineral, an essential oil, and a seed oil.

Kuo Ye Shi Da Gong Lao (M. bealei)

Ku Shen (Sophora flavescens)

Ku Fan (Calcined Alum)

Bing Shui (Borneol)

Ma You (Hemp oil)

The Mahonia, Sophora, and Calcined Alum are combined in equal parts by weight in the Hemp oil and allowed to soak over-night. This combination is then cooked until the Mahonia begins to show signs of turning color, toward burning. The dregs are strained from the oil and the Borneol is added. The amounts are not specified, but the finished product is used for ear-aches in children and other ear infections. It is put on a cotton ball and allowed to sit in the ear.

While I might question the solubility of some of the constituents from the first three components of this formula in oil, I think the formula itself has good potential for further study and it illustrates the use of Mahonia to treat heat, inflammation, infections, and the swelling associated with these conditions.

In the Pacific Northwest of the US and Western Canada there are several native species of Mahonia. These are the plants that I have the most experience with. There is little difference in the way Native Americans, Western herbalists, and others who use(d) these species from the ways that I have outlined above from the Chinese literature. However, I would suggest that this herb (here I am linking the entire group found in the area of Western North America mentioned above) has held a more prominent place in the Western herbal materia medica and so by this virtue has undergone a bit more scrutiny and research of clinical applications than their Chinese relatives. This, however, is somewhat tempered by the limited number of years of information we have about the use of this group of plants.

As many of us know, our knowledge of Native American people’s use of most plants is limited by a number of factors that are out of the scope of this article. And, do to the amount of time Europeans and others have had to use this plant our history may be somewhat limited. However, by the time we get to Ellingwood’s American Materia Medica, Therapeutics, and Pharmacognosy in 1919, of M. aquifolium we have the following statement: “When first introduced it was recommended in chronic malarial conditions, in intermittent fevers, and in the stomach , liver and intestinal and general glandular disorders of these fevers. It was claimed that its tonic influence was conspicuous in these conditions and that in certain cases it exercised marked antiperiodic properties. It certainly acts as a tonic and corrective to disorders of the liver, an influence that has been often remarked when given for skin diseases.”

I find it to be quite accurate, there is more to this plant and its relatives than this statement might lead one to believe. Be, to be fair, this statement is merely the final statement of a much longer monograph. We also know that this herb has berberine, a well known alkaloid that is likely one of the most researched individual alkaloids of plant origin. We also know that berberine, and the rest of the plant that gives it its heat clearing, anti-inflammatory, antibiotic, clear heat-toxin, etc. qualities also has a detrimental effect on the gut bacteria. While this is not nearly the kind of “carpet bombing” that a course of most any antibiotic drug that might be prescribed, it does nevertheless kill some of the good bacteria in the GI tract that we need.

Another consideration in a clinical setting is the concept of “yin vacuity heat/fire,” which comes from Chinese medicine. This is a very important clinical pattern, and one that seems to be being adopted by many Western herbalists who have very little training in Chinese medicine, but understand the clinical importance. Yin vacuity is a conglomerate of symptoms that may include such things as urinary tract infections, a sensation of heat at night or sweating while sleeping, dry throat and/or cough, menstrual problems, a floating and rapid pulse, and a dry red tongue (generally with little or no tongue fur). The primary causes of yin vacuity are exhaustion from “living life to the fullest,” long-standing disease (primarily associated with heat/inflammation), stress, and poor eating habits; essentially modern life as many of us know it.

Therefore, when we have the above picture in combination with any other type of disorder, what we have is a combination of various patterns that need to be addressed to relieve the suffering of our patient. Another issue that comes up for these types of patients is that their digestion is usually somewhat weakened, therefore the use of herbs like Mahonia need to be applied with care and with proper formulation. As I stated in my book, Western Herbs According to Traditional Chinese Medicine: A Practitioners Guide, I have found Mahonia to be valuable when used in these situations, but what I didn’t mention are two things: 1) I generally use the whole root, not just the root bark for this clinical pattern and 2) a special preparation of this herb that is borrowed from the Chinese system of paozhi* (炮制). The Chinese do not, to my knowledge, prepare Mahonia in this way, but I have taken a preparation technique used widely for other herbs, specifically Huang Bai (Phellodendron amurense 黄柏). The preparation takes a tree bark (Huang Bai), which has nearly the same clinical indications (and similar chemistry, berberine) as Mahonia, and soaks it with salted water then stir-fries the bark until it becomes dry. This process is said to have interesting and very useful changes to its medicinal application, 1) it does not damage the spleen and stomach (digestion) and 2) long-term use both nourishes the yin while downbearing fire (reduce chronic inflammatory symptoms).

The above processing technique changes the solubility of certain constituents and other changes, which are out of the scope of this article. However, I will say that I generally do not use this preparation as a tincture but in decoction. I have little experience with tincturing the processed plant. From a clinical aspect this is a very important and useful way of using Mahonia with myriad applications in the modern clinic.

*Paozhi (炮制) is a fascinating system of preparing medicinals from harvest to consumption. The most interesting parts, IMHO, are the pre-decoction preparations such as described above. There is more to come on this topic in the future….


2 Responses to “Oregon Grape Root / Mahonia species”

  1. KarenD January 24, 2012 7:59 pm

    “Western Herbs According to Traditional Chinese Medicine: A Practitioners Guide ” – Great resource for detailed energetics & specific uses of western herbs according to Chinese herb categories. This book goes in-depth to the subtle nuances of appropriate application & substitution. A valuable addition for the eastern-trained practitioner who would like to incorporate N. American herbs into their herb pharmacy. Excellent photographs.

  2. thomas January 24, 2012 9:53 pm

    Thanks Karen, I hope it is a good resource for students and practitioners. The next volume is nearing completion and we are offering this material (from booth books) in our materia medica series here http://sylvanbotanical.com/classes/western-herbs-in-chinese-medicine-materia-medica/ and here http://sylvanbotanical.com/classes/western-herbs-in-chinese-medicine-materia-medica-2/ with more to come in the future.

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