You may not have heard of Mahonia berries but I know you’d love them – and they’re likely growing near you. Mahonia japonica and Mahonia bealei are both extremely common ornamental shrubs found in a wide variety of urban spaces – and in early July both are laden with deep blue dusky berries hanging in fat grape-like clusters. These berries are sweet, juicy delights and they make the perfect tart complement for these buttery crisp oat bars. I added chopped walnuts for extra protein and crunch!
These shrubs are a relative to our native Oregon grape (in the Berberidaceae family) and come from either China, Taiwan the Himalayas – no one seems quite sure. But its berries are sweeter & juicier with none of the bitterness of Oregon grape. Plus it doesn’t have the large pit-like seeds of the Oregon grape berry, which means you can use the whole berry in baking and desserts without any sieving.
Both are planted in urban green spaces across North America and Europe and Mahonia bealei has naturalized in many areas of the US where it is classified as invasive. These are winter-flowering shrubs so you’ve also probably noticed their long sprays of yellow blooms very early in spring.
They have a beautiful honey-like fragrance and I like to pick and dry them for teas. They can grow very tall, up to 8-9 feet, and their large sharp holly-like leaves vary from light to dark green. Each leaf has 7-19 narrow, stiff, spiny-toothed, oblong to lance-shaped, dark green leaflets which grow alternately on the stem. Stems can be purplish red in color – or not.
Mahonia generally has not been bred or cultivated for its berries – which means they are in their original or natural state. Wild berries are much higher in nutrients and inflammation-fighting antioxidants which likely means these berries are bursting with far more nutrients than domesticated blueberries!
I use Mahonia berries in jams, pies, tarts, and pink lemonade. One of my favorite ways to use them is in syrups flavored with rose petals and lavender – lovely to pour into chilled Prosecco. Another super-easy way to serve them is in a mousse-like whip, made by simply whipping the cooked berries, sugar (and just a little dash of cornstarch or xanthan gum) together in a food processor. Absolutely delicious! And just recently I made a delicious Mahonia Berry & Lavender Cheesecake – divine. (Recipes for the syrup, mousse and cheesecake can be found in the July edition of Gather’s Monthly Almanac of Seasonal Wildcrafting and Herbal Cookery for Gather Patrons)
I guess you can tell I’m quite fond of combining lavender & rose with these berries. Honeysuckle blossoms are also nice, but I can never get enough blossoms and I use the ones I have in my honeysuckle extract. But on to the recipe at hand! Not much to say, except that is extremely easy to make. You just start with a simple flour and oat dough, press 3/4 of it firmly into the bottom of a pan, put the cooked berries in the middle, then crumble the rest of the dough on top. Well, there a few more steps – but you get the idea! You could do a non-gluten version with oat flour, or a vegan one with coconut oil. Just search for recipes online – there are plenty. I hope you enjoy getting to know the Mahonia berry!
Mahonia Berry Oat Bars
1 dozen large bars or 24 smaller squares
- 1 & 1/2 cups flour
- 1 & 3/4 cups rolled oats
- 1/2 cup chopped walnuts
- 1 cup melted butter
- 1 cup packed dark brown sugar or coconut sugar
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- ½ teaspoon fine sea salt
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 2½ cups Mahonia Berries
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- ¼ cup water
- 4 tsp. cornstarch or xantham gum
- two teaspoons grated orange or lemon zest
- two whole lavender buds
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line an 8 or 9-inch baking pan with parchment paper, allowing the paper to overhang on the sides for easy removal.
- In a large bowl, add the dry ingredients and stir until combined. Add melted butter and work through the dough until crumbly. Press 3/4 of this mixture into the bottom of your baking pan very firmly. Bake crust for 10 minutes. Remove from oven.
- In a small pot, add the berries, sugar, lavender, and orange zest. Cook for 15 minutes on low heat until the berries pop open. Let cool for 5 minutes. Fish out the lavender buds. Pour the berry mixture on top of the crust.
- Sprinkle the remaining crust mixture on top of the berry layer.
- Bake in the preheated oven for 30 to 40 minutes until golden. Cool completely in the pan.
- Using paper overhang, carefully remove the shortbread from pan; place on cutting board. Cut into 4 quarters; cut each quarter in half, then in half again, until you get the desired size/ amount of squares.
P.S. The Mahonia is pretty easy to identify but please remember if you are not 110% sure that you’ve got the Mahonia berry – don’t eat it!!!