By Keva Hoffmann Boardman —
I’m on the riding mower last weekend and encountered some of the least-friendly Texas botanicals: stickyweed (Galium aparino), greenbriar (Smilax bona-nox L.) and agarita (Berberis trifoliolata). I totally detest the first two. The only thing stickyweed is good for is to use in a throwing fight against your friends and siblings, not unlike a poor man’s version of paintball. And, I’ve yet to come up with a way to live peaceably with greenbriar — nature’s own version of barbed wire. But agarita? Now that’s an unfriendly with a good side.
Agarita, or algerita, or agritos, or Texas currant, or chaparral berry (so many names…) is a wild evergreen shrub with bluish-grey/green holly-like leaves. It puts on very fragrant yellow flowers in the spring that lure bees and butterflies. The blooms are followed by bright red-orange berries that are favorites of birds and small animals which leads to the plant’s propagation through — well, you know.
I have many good childhood memories of harvesting the tasty berries. Riding on the back of Grandpa’s pickup truck to “a spot” with lots of agarita bushes, my Grandma, aunties and cousins and I would traipse through pastures thick with mesquite and prickly pear. At a nice full bush, we’d carefully spread a big old sheet underneath the prickly branches and “beat the bush” with and old wood pole to cause the berries to fall. The filled sheet was gathered in and the results poured into big buckets. One by one, each agarita bush was attacked until all the buckets were full. We’d jump back on the truck for the trip home to Grandma’s house where the sheets would be spread out again on the grass. The aunties would pour out the buckets and scatter the berries and leaves over the cloths.
There were so many bugs mixed into the harvest! As the sheet lay in the sun, a lot of the bugs ran off to find cover. I hated this part because there were a lot of what we called stinkbugs and blister beetles crawling around. Then, the berries were winnowed with wind (sheet lifted up and down) and hand-picked to get rid of the pokey leaves. Hours later, the berries were washed and then boiled in water to get an amazing red-orange-pinkish-colored juice. The berries were also smashed and put into a piece of cheesecloth that was gathered up and then hung on a knob of the kitchen cabinet to let more flavor-filled liquid drip into the pot. This juice was then made into one of the most delicious jellies I know. My mom is from north of Fredericksburg; they call agarita jelly, Johahnisbeeren. Apparently it reminded the early pioneers of red currants that grew wild in Germany (named in honor of St. John the Baptist’s birthday). My dad comes from this area where folks call it Berberitzen Gelee — from the Latin name for the agarita. It has always seemed funny to me that these German communties didn’t use the same name.
One of my aunts also took berries and produced agarita berry wine in a storeroom off her garage. She’d bring it out to share with the family at Thanksgiving. It, too, has its own unique flavor — sweet like most homemade wines, with a delicate color and unexpected punch. Most years, you can find homemade agarita wine to taste out at The Museum of Handmade Furniture’s Folkfest (April 13-14). There are usually several different kinds of homemade wines to sample at the booth.
The agarita doesn’t just give us delicious berries. Native Americans found uses for almost every part of the shrub. While seeds and dried berries were identified in the rock shelters of the Lower Pecos River and wood from agarita has been found in campsites around Uvalde, present archeology shows that very few tribes consumed the tart little berries. The Mescalero Apache did make a sort of jelly mixing the berries with an unknown sweeetner which some feel might have been sugar introduced by Anglo settlers.
The Havasupai, some Navajo and other tribes used agarita roots in a tea for treating stomach upset and as a laxative. Other tribes used the antiseptic qualities of the alkaloid-rich root and branches, soaked in water, to create a treatment for wounds, skin, gum and eye problems. Navajo also used a cold infusion to treat scorpion bites (that’s useful info for around here) and a decoction of the leaves and twigs to treat muscle ache and stiffness in joints. And here is an interesting historical tidbit: The Paiute used a decoction of agarita to treat urinary infections and venereal disease.
I haven’t tried any of the medicinal uses of the agarita, but a friend and I had read about Navaho and Mescalero Apache dyeing buckskin and hides yellow with agarita and we decided to try and get a dye. Salvaging a root bulb from an agarita dug out to put in a fence line, my friend and I chopped the yellow wood into small pieces and soaked them in water for a couple of days. The concoction then got more water and was boiled for a few hours. We had made a brilliant yellow dye! We dyed alum-mordanted wool in the dye bath and then spun it into beautiful yellow-colored yarn. Fun fact: During WWII, agarita root dye was one of the hues used to color-code parachutes.
The wonderful agarita’s little green berries are starting to turn red in this beautiful sunny weather. Have those sheets and poles ready for this year’s harvest. Jelly or wine? You win either way.