Agarita – Mahonia Species

Agarita berries are some of the earliest fruits to harvest in our region. The berries are tart for sure – but I like the flavor better than strawberries.

Finding Agarita

Mind you agarita is not something found in Low Desert around Phoenix – it’s more of a Middle and Upper Elevation plant, found at around 3000 feet and upwards. These tough native plants grow well in the alkaline soils, low humidity, and low-water climate of the Southwest. You may find some growing under mesquite.

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Blooming as early as January, Mahonia is a wonderful nectar source for bees.

Forage Agarita

Savorist Monica King reminded me of this native treat, because she wanted to grow it for her bees. She started by harvesting a few fruits for seeds, but ended up with a plethora of this tasty fruit.

The most common Sonoran agarita is Mahonia trifoliolata. Mahonia is in the Barberry family (Berberidaceae), a family found around the world. The Basque herders were familiar with wild barberries from their old country, and welcomed our Western species fruits as they shepherded their flocks to summer pasture in the mountains. I learned the plant as agarita from a Basque herder when I was a child. Other common names include agrito, algerita, currant-of-Texas, wild currant, and chaparral berry.

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Fremont’s mahonia, Mahonia fremontii, is found at higher elevations in the Southwest and is just as tasty. Photo courtesy W. Schrenk.

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Word Nerd Shares:

Wikipedia tells us that: “the name “agarita” comes from the Spanish verb agarrar, which means “to grab.” The ending “-ita” is often added to little things, so agarita means “grabs a little.” This was probably said because the bush is a bit scratchy but does not have significant spines.”  (Tell that to my scratched up hands!)

The Agarita Plant

Mahonia trifoliata is an evergreen shrub generally from 2 feet to 9 feet tall, found across Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. Its three-part leaves (tri = three, foliata = leaves) are grey-green, very stiff and pointy. Agaritas prefer dry areas with well-drained sandy, and somewhat alkaline soil. The shrubs usually gather around under mesquite and other small trees, creating nice thickets. They tend to not stand alone in the wilderness.

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Those leaflets bear some sharp little tips.

Harvest Agarita – in Spring

The bright red edible fruits of agarita can be harvested late April to May. Because of the scratchy leaves, harvesting the fruit can be a of a challenge. I tried to harvest wearing gloves but had to give it up. Just plan on some scratches – about like harvesting raspberries, not as bad as blackberries.

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Since the birds can hop in between the leaves just fine, I harvest the easy to grab fruits and leave the rest for them.

Using Agarita Fruit

You can eat agarita fruit raw, right off the bush. Its more something you suck on than munch because there can be ample seeds inside.

If you don’t like a mouthful of pebbles, then harvest the to be used for juice or cooked in any manner one would prepare any berry such as jam, jelly, or wine. The juice from these berries has a pleasingly complex sweet and sour flavor. You can put them through a food mill and use the pulp for jam.

Save those seeds! They can be roasted as a coffee alternative.

Other Agarita Uses

Dye

The bark of stem and roots of Mahonia offers a brilliant yellow dye for tanned hides. It also works wonderfully for dying wool. I have yet to try it for cotton.

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Found in California, Mahonia nevinii has slightly different leaves and fruit. Still edible though. Photo courtesy Z. Akulova.

Medicinal

Native Apache tribes used shavings of the wood for an eye medicine. Roots were used to treat ailments ranging from fevers to stomach troubles and open wounds. It was used as a laxative by the Ramah Navajo. The roots have been scientifically proven to kill both bacteria and fungi – and thus their traditional uses to treat wounds, skin, or gum problems may have some validity. Note tho that the roots contain large amount of the alkaloid berberine, which can be toxic.

The leaves are chewed fresh or dried to help relieve nausea, especial that accompanying hangovers and motion sickness. A tea made from dried leaves is said to also offer relief. Roots are said to help with digestion and other stomach issues such as diarrhea. Nowdays herbalists take the root wood and finely shave it into vodka for a tincture.

Harvest Agarita Sustainably

Agarita is food for many wild animals, including birds, small rodents, and even coyotes and the occasional bear. So be sure to leave ample fruit for them.

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Be gentle when you harvest. Birds nest in the shrubs and small mammals use the plant for cover.

Be careful! Small rodents and birds are food for our slithery neighbors and they may be snoozing in the shade under the bushes. Always watch where you put your feet and hands.

Thanks for reading!

Jacqueline

We publish a “Foraged Find” almost every week in our newsletter.  Just sayin’ 😉

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