This piece was originally written by Stan Drezek and updated by Sandra Stacy, both Texas Master Naturalists.
COMMON IN PHIL HARDBERGER PARK
It is very early spring, and as you walk along the trail you catch the scent of honey, and your eyes are attracted to the yellow flowers on a ubiquitous evergreen shrub named Agarita, Berberis trifoliolata.
The honey-scented Agarita is very common on the dry rocky limestone ground which characterizes the Texas Hill Country, a part of the Edwards Plateau. If you look closely as you walk along the trails of our Natural Areas, you cannot miss it! Especially in winter, its grey-green evergreen foliage stands out. After completing a hike, you may remember seeing it often close to the trail. That is, because Agarita loves the sun, and, while it tolerates shade, it tends to proliferate on the borders of the forest, where there is access to light. In that light, Agarita can grow to as much as eight feet, in the shade, a height of four feet is more frequently seen. Will you ever forget that early spring fragrance of Agarita?
SHARP TRIFOLIATE LEAVES
Another reason you cannot miss Agarita is its very holly-like, leaves. If you have not felt the leaves, make sure to feel them. They are extremely sharp. Once felt, it is not forgotten. Actually, the leaf structure is three leaflets, each of which has three to seven sharp-tipped lobes. Inevitably, some dry, and fall into the litter in our arid climate. That litter full of those sharp leaves needs to be raked, both to avoid the barbs and to keep bare soil around the base. Agarita does not tolerate moisture.
BRIGHT RED BERRIES
Now pretend it is a bit later in spring, closer to May than March. At this time Agarita is covered with green berries, turning into bright red ones, usually by June.
USES: SHELTER, SOURCE OF FOOD, HEDGE, MEDICINE
Agarita is a beautiful sight with its dark green foliage and its red berries, but soon the birds and small mammals that love the berries consume them. Of course, if you are a jelly-maker and know the trick of placing a ground cover beneath the shrub and beating it with a stick, you will be rewarded with enough berries to make a jelly. Should I eat that berry? Don’t eat the berry from any plant unless you are sure it is safe to eat. Many berries are poisonous!
This most common shrub has all of these uses.
- Its fragrance, feel, and taste inspire us.
- Its sharp leaflets provide excellent protective shelter for birds, small mammals, and reptiles.
- Its yellow flowers, February to April, are a source of nectar for bees and butterflies.
- Its berries, April to June, are an important food source in the Hill Country especially for birds, raccoons, and opossums, as well as serving humans as a source for jelly.
- Its young leaves are eaten by deer, goats, sheep, and cattle.
- It makes a wonderful hedge or border—-plant it where you do not want people to go.
- It is a great landscape plant, requiring little water and keeping its attractive foliage year-round.
- A tan-orange dye can be made from its wood.
- Its nutritional value is its high vitamin C content.
- It has potential medicinal uses due to containing berberine; “however the safety of using berberine for any conditions is not adequately defined by high-quality clinical research. Its potential for adverse effects is high. [Wikipedia]”. According to www.ezherbs:
- The leaves can be chewed for a natural anti-nausea.
- The root can be used for an anti-viral and anti-diarrheal.
- A tea can be made from the branches for help with digestion, constipation and as a blood tonic.
HARBINGER OF SPRING
But for me, it all comes back to that honey sweet smell in February that tells me spring is here. Coupled with the flowering of Red Buds and Mexican Plums, I know the profusion of wildflowers is not far behind, and once again, this magical land will call us.