Berberis piperiana or Oregon Grape. Photo by Leo Michels.
When my parents bought their house in Shasta County, California, in1976, I was struck by two things: the intense incenselike fragrance of the eighty acres of dense forest opposite my bedroom window, especially on warm summer mornings, and the pleasantly acrid scent of the thickets of manzanita and digger pines, especially on rainy winter nights. Because the forest was composed of both, plants which do well in that mostly arid climate of hot summers and rather mild winters. Whole families of deer lived among the trees, though I can’t imagine where they actually slept and bore their young: perhaps somewhere along the Sacramento River which ran at the base of a bluff not too far away. There were jackrabbits too, large and really mangy looking creatures which came boldly into our front garden to nibble on the blades of grass in the early morning. They often had large ticks attached to their ears. My brother and I were fond of exploring the woods, sometimes following the low arched deer trails which led into the depths of the trees. And we would occasionally come across clumps of picturesque Oregon Grape.
Botanists know it as Berberis piperiana, and there are other related varieties by various names. Berberis aquifolium is the state flower of Oregon, for example. B. piperiana is an upright shrub that grows to a foot or two in height, new plants arising at intervals from the ground, emerging from a creeping root-stock. Native Americans used it for seasoning meat and soups. The leaves were used to make a beverage similar to our grape juice. A yellowish dye was extracted from the flowers and used to decorate baskets and fabrics. Bears seek out the berries for food, and humans today use them for making jelly.
A fairly regular companion on our jaunts through the woods was our black long-haired German Shepherd dog named Max, who had a nasty habit of escaping from us instantly whenever he sensed the presence of a rabbit. Eventually he’d turn up, but occasionally such events resulted in near disaster. As the time he ran at top speed across an open meadow, heedless of our calls to return, until he was stopped abruptly by a sturdy barbed wire fence, beneath which the rabbit had escaped. We heard only Max’s astonished howl as he bounced several feet back from the fence and landed on his feet. And there was the time he vanished into an especially dense thicket of manzanita, resulting in more howls, until after a very long wait on our part he emerged, apparently unscathed but minus his rugged chain collar. Max lived a very long life, but I’ve never been able to understand how he did it. He was not actually forced to forage for jackrabbits in order to survive, of course, and that certainly had something to do with it.