Flora Fact: Painful Picking
If you can overcome the prickly defense, agarita berries are a treasure.
By Dyanne Fry Cortez
If you’ve spent any time in the not-so-humid parts of Texas, you’ve probably encountered agarita plants.
Mahonia trifoliolata is an evergreen shrub that grows wild along fencelines, on rocky slopes and under trees in lightly wooded areas. A typical specimen is 3 to 6 feet high, although some grow taller. Seen from a passing vehicle, it’s typically a ragged clump of dull green or blue-green branches. Up close, agarita is easily identified by its stiff, three-part leaves.
The leaflets join at right angles. Each one has sharp points at the tip and sides. With those natural weapons aimed pretty much every direction, some animals will think twice about approaching this plant. For those who can get past its defenses, however, the prickly agarita has much to offer.
Quail and songbirds find nesting sites under its tangle of low branches, where predators may not take the trouble to go after them. Agarita can also shelter seedlings of other trees and shrubs, giving them a chance to grow past the delicate stage before some grazing herbivore mows them down.
Bees and butterflies converge on the blooms that appear in late February or March. The flowers are small but attractive, with two rows of yellow petals and a sweet fragrance. Agarita is one of the first nectar-producing plants to bloom in spring, so it’s an important food source for these and other insects.
Bright red berries follow the flowers, ripening in April or May. The berries are about a quarter-inch in diameter, borne on short stalks at the bases of the leaves. Birds love them, and they also taste good to those of us willing to fight the armed foliage for them. Fresh agarita berries have a distinctive, slightly acidic flavor. They’re great for making jelly, fruit beverages and wine. (See www.tpwmagazine.com/archive/2013/aug/ed_3_wildharvest/ for tips on picking and cleaning.)
Botanically, agarita is a member of the barberry family. Agarita roots and stems contain an alkaloid called berberine, which can yield a yellow dye. Native American tribes and settlers made berberine dyes to color baskets, leather and fabric. Deb McClintock, a weaver in Blanco County, uses agarita roots to dye wool and silk for rugs and scarves. A 1977 article in this magazine gave instructions for dyeing Easter eggs with an extract of this plant, which has also been cited in folk remedies for toothaches and impaired kidney and liver function.
Among species native to Texas, agarita has three less common cousins. Texas barberry (Mahonia swaseyi) is comparatively rare, found only in a handful of counties on the Edwards Plateau. Red barberry (M. haematocarpa) is native to the southwestern United States, including the Trans-Pecos area of West Texas. Creeping barberry (M. repens) ranges through the Rocky Mountains, and is sometimes seen in the high parts of Guadalupe Mountains National Park. All four species have edible berries; the fruit of creeping barberry is dark blue.
In landscape plantings, agarita can take care of itself. Deer will often leave it alone, unless they’re really hungry. It tolerates heat, cold and drought, stays green year-round and produces lovely flowers and fruit. Like many other Texas natives, M. trifoliolata serves as a reminder that a prickly exterior may conceal great gifts.
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