Following very old traditions, many of us decorate our homes with evergreens this time of year. While many people use European holly and ivy, there are native “Oregon” broad-leaved evergreens that deck our halls very well, including Oregon grape and Oregon myrtle.
What’s in a common name? These are the names most people know a plant or an animal by, and they often are descriptive.
However, common names can also often be misleading. For example: “Oregon grape” is found from southwest Alaska to northern California, and as far east as western Montana; and it’s related to barberries, not grapes.
Tall Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium) is Oregon's state flower. (In fact, our Governor's Mansion is named "Mahonia Hall" in its honor.) Tall Oregon grape is a three- to-10-foot tall shrub distinguished by the very glossy, dark green leaves that look rather like holly leaves, but flatter, with more points along the edge. Tall Oregon grape has five to nine leaflets on each six- to twelve-inch long stem.
Also common in our region is dwarf, or dull, Oregon grape (Mahonia nervosa). Dwarf Oregon grape is seldom over three feet high, and sports nine to 21 leaflets on each ten- to sixteen-inch long stem.
Tall Oregon grape is usually found in fairly open sites; dwarf Oregon grape is more common in shadier areas, sometimes as under-growth in Douglas fir forests. Both are widely used in landscaping, valued for their handsome, upright shape and because the spiny leaves discourage people from walking through the plantings.
Both tall and dwarf Oregon grape have loose clusters of small yellow flowers that produce bitter purple berries. The berries are eaten by birds and other wildlife, as well as by people —although people usually cook the acrid fruit into jams and jellies, or juice them for wine. The stems and bark of both Oregon grapes have long been used as the source of bright yellow dye.
Another “Oregon” broad-leaved evergreen is Oregon myrtle (Umbellularia californica), also known as "myrtlewood" — and known as "California laurel," or "California bay-laurel." Defying the name we give it, more of “Oregon myrtle’s” range is in California than in Southwestern Oregon.
“California laurel” isn’t correct either: This evergreen has no close relatives, but is in the same plant family as sassafras, cinnamon, camphor, and avocado. And it’s not the same myrtle referred to in the Bible, nor does it grow in the Holy Land, as sometimes claimed.
The gently rounded shape gives a distinctive profile to Oregon myrtles growing in the open. The stout trunks of myrtle usually give rise to a many-branched crown that supports a dense canopy of somewhat shiny, dark green, elongate—and very pungent—leaves. Small yellowish flowers develop into nearly round, olive-sized fruit.
Most people are familiar with Oregon myrtle as a beautiful hardwood that is prized by woodworkers for it's hard, multi-colored grain. Myrtle leaves are also a good seasoning (a heady substitute for the bay leaves that come in jars), and are often browsed by deer and occasionally by livestock. Further, myrtle's large seeds are eaten by birds, rodents, and feral pigs.
For information on how you can arrange an exploration of our fascinating natural history, contact Marty at 541-267-4027, email@example.com, or www.facebook.com/wavecrestdiscoveries. Questions and comments about local natural history are welcome. www.wavecrestdiscoveries.com. Gift certificates are available.