Mahonia berry – sweet & tart, best after freezing!

The Mahonia shrub isn’t only a formidable winter flower shrub – it’s also a source of high-value berries that you can really take advantage of!

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Mahonia berry, a rediscovery in these modern times

Today, Mahonia is barely starting to reappear as a fruit that deserves attention.

  • There aren’t any plantations or farms that grow Mahonia on scale yet.
  • At most, organized foraging takes place in certain areas where native Mahonia grows.

This is actually rather surprising, since the health benefits of Mahonia have long been used by tribes and peoples in the Canadian and American West. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, Chinese Mahonia is an oft-used ingredient as well. This simple but bountiful berry can do much more than simply feed the birds!

The seed fruits are very similar to blueberry. However, since they’ve only recently begun to raise serious interest, not much breeding and selection has taken place.

  • The Mahonia species we’re planting now are as close to being “developed by nature” as they can be!
  • Most recent developments aim for ornamental appeal, hence the increased promotion of the unique Chinese Mahonia.

Unlike blueberry and bilberry, which are sweet, luscious and plump thanks to centuries of selection, Mahonia berries still bear the marks of nature’s way. They’re rough, tart, and straight to the point – full of vitamin C and anti-oxidants!

However, thanks to cross-breeding, selection and an increase in demand, newer varieties that bear more interesting fruit will soon appear.

Mahonia seeds, rich colors and easy sowing

Description of the Mahonia berries

These fruits are grown in clusters that match the appearance of the Mahonia flowers. Usually, these clusters form a long ream of berries.

  • These bunches of fruits are called “racemes” when they’re in long rows, such as for Mahonia eurybracteata species.
  • These are purple in color, a deep violet sheen that explains why the common name for many species of Mahonia is “Oregon grape”.
  • Mahonia berries are covered in a whitish coating. Touching them with your fingers leaves a mark. This is a natural wax coating that the plant itself produces. It wards off pests and keeps moisture in.

A single Mahonia shrub, especially one that is well established, can yield quite a harvest.

  • For a shrub that’s 1 by 1 yard tall and wide (1 x 1m), expect around 4 pounds (2 kg).
  • Thanks to the clusters, harvesting the mahonia is easy.

Mahonia berry flavor

The seeds themselves take up the major part of the berry. Not much flesh surrounds them, but there’s definitely enough to still consider eating the fruit!

  • When you first burst the berry in your mouth, a tart, green-tasting burst of juice makes you pucker up.
  • After the first few seconds, the true taste of the Mahonia berry appears. It’s soft and somewhat woody, quite pleasant.
  • Don’t bite the seeds, they’re a bit bitter.

Mahonia seeds

In each berry, from 3 to 6 seeds are clustered towards the center. These seeds, once the flesh is removed, are a rich brown color. They’re also edible, with one drawback. Indeed, they contain berberine, which is a compound that interferes with brain development for babies and children.

It’s possible to remove the seeds from the flesh, even though it’s a tough job.

  • Quick and easy way is to mash the berries up, without breaking the pits.
  • Sieve the flesh through a sieve, keeping the seeds behind.
  • If you want to keep a few berries looking nice to decorate a dish, it’s easy to slice them open with a sharp knife and pick the seeds out. Each half still looks great.

Harvesting mahonia berries

Here is a full article on harvesting mahonia berries, but, in a nutshell, the main facts are as follows:

When to harvest your mahonia berries

Mahonia berries are only fully ripe when they’ve gone through a couple night’s worth of freezing.

Low temperatures transform chemical compounds in the fruit.

  • The tart compounds that usually make unripe fruits bitter and acidic break down as fruit cells start to ice over.
  • Long, bland sugar chains are shortened and make the fruit turn sweet!

This is similar to the phenomenon of bletting.

Bletting makes many otherwise unsavory fruits edible, such as medlar and blackthorn sloes.

How long do I have before the mahonia berries go bad?

Rinse them out properly in any case to remove dirt, bugs and twigs.

In the refrigerator, the berries will easily keep for a week.

  • You can set the nicest ones aside to plop them in fresh yoghurt.

However, if larger quantities were harvested, they’re likely to be a bit crushed together already.

  • Process these into jams, syrups within a day, at most two.
  • For liquor and wine, you’ve got a bit longer since fermentation is part of the process anyway. Aim for having everything in bottles within a week.

Nutritional value of mahonia berries

Flavonoids & phenols that work for better health

Among the many health benefits of Mahonia berries, you’ll discover:

  • high vitamin C content
  • powerful anti-oxidant activity

This makes these berries really appealing – if you can take their tartness!

Nutritional content of Oregon grape holly berries

This data relates to Mahonia aquifolium, one of the most common varieties.

Vitamin C – 72.3 to 110.2 mg/100g
Sugars/carbs –  4.8 to 7.2 g/100g
Anthocyanins – 101.6 to 252.5 mg/100g

Trace elements – iron, potassium, manganese, phosphorus, calcium, copper, zinc, lead (depending on growing conditions and rinsing of fruits prior to consumption).

Smart tip about Mahonia berries

These berries are best after the first frosts, so rejoice when the weather is starting to get cold!


Sources:

“Mahonia aquifolium as a promising raw material for the food industry”, by Vladimir N. Sorokopudov, Nina I. Myachikova, Cecilia Georgescu, at the Lucian Blaga University of Sibiu, in Chemistry & Chemical Engineering, Biotechnology, Food Industry 2017, 18 (4), pages 427-434 (ISSN 1582-540X)


Credits for images shared to Nature & Garden (all edits by Gaspard Lorthiois):
Leaves, berries, seeds by Rosalyn & Gaspard Lorthiois, own work