Monika Maeckle for the Rivard Report
Mike Casey has been harvesting agarita berries from the hedge of his South Alamo bungalow for more than 20 years. The longtime Southtown resident relishes the tart, red berries that hide in the prickly, evergreen shrub.
Sometimes called wild currants, agarita berries are the fruit of Mahonia trifoliolata, the most common species of barberry found in Texas. The plant’s thorny, five-pronged leaves also rank it high on the list of our state’s most ornery shrubs, so gathering the berries requires determination and a certain level of pain tolerance.
“I just get in a Zen mood like I’m counting beads,” said Casey, who harvests the sweet-and-sour fruits barehanded. “The leaves themselves are firm and pointed like little needles. … It doesn’t reach the threshold of pain, but it is discomfort.”
Few people would dismiss agarita’s defensive prowess or its usefulness in the landscape. Foragers use agarita berries in tarts, pancakes, and cobblers or convert them into jelly, syrup, and juice.
Wildlife also consume the berries, which are loaded with pectin, carbohydrates, Vitamin C, and antioxidants, said Patty Leslie Pasztor, a local botanical consultant and co-author of Texas Trees: A Friendly Guide.
Agarita seems to be a favorite of many beetles and bugs, as well as preferred fodder for birds, raccoons, opossums, and other wildlife. Apparently, deer don’t touch it, probably because they can’t get to the fruit without being stabbed. Texas state botanist Chris Best quantified agarita berry fans as “every frugivorous critter that can get its mandibles on them.”
“I had a mockingbird take all the berries off my bush this weekend,” said San Antonio River Authority ecologist Lee Marlowe.
Marlowe said the river authority has placed agarita at its headquarters on East Guenther Street, installed it at the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River, and planted it in locations all along the river. The City of San Antonio also has utilized agarita bushes at the grotto at Hemisfair and the Portal de San Fernando. As a slow-growing, drought-tolerant evergreen that can reach six feet in height, it offers much and requires little care.
Some speculate the plant’s name hails from the Spanish word agria, which means sour. But Kelly Lyons, a biologist at Trinity University and native plant expert, believes agarita comes from agarrar, to grab, in Spanish.
The thorny bush is among the first to bloom in the spring. Its redolent yellow flowers serve as one of the earliest available nectar sources for bees and butterflies. Casey describes their fragrance as “heavenly.”
Pasztor lauds agarita’s potential as a barrier plant. She recalled the old Tobin Estate’s perimeter agarita hedge. “They would prune it periodically, but imagine: a blooming and fruiting hedge that’s pretty impenetrable,” she said. “Some people plant it by their teenager’s windows.”
The Foraging Texas website cites the many uses of agarita. Its plentiful seeds can be roasted and ground for a caffeine-free coffee substitute. Other ethnobotanical sources praise agarita’s myriad uses: leaves can be chewed to prevent nausea, wood can be boiled to make dyes, and roots utilized to fight fungi and bacterial infections.
“One gentleman told me that his mama used to grind up agarita root and sprinkle it in his shoes for athlete’s foot,” Pasztor said.
The toughest part about loving agarita is getting the berries off the bush.
The classic approach to harvesting is to lay a sheet on the ground and beat the bush with a broom to collect berries. A more efficient method: Place an umbrella under a branch flush with berries and comb the spindly ream, from the inside of the bush out, since the prickly leaves face outward. Wear protective, elbow-length gloves.
Inevitably, twigs, agarita leaves, dirt, organic matter, and numerous insects will accompany your berry harvest. Once you have your bowl of berries, pick out the detritus. Piling a cup or so of berries on a small mesh screen – such as a spatter screen – while tilting and shaking slightly also can serve to separate the fruit from unwanted debris. Casey dumps the berries on a sheet in front of a floor fan.
“I turn it up to hurricane speed, and that just blows out the leaves and detritus,” he said.
Casey’s Famous Agarita Jelly Recipe, which was adapted from Irma S. Rombauer’s The Joy of Cooking, follows:
- Pick berries
- Winnow the leaves and any extraneous particles by putting an old fitted sheet on the floor. Use a fan at high speed to blow the chaff from the berries. If you can slowly pour the berries onto the sheet in front of the fan a couple of feet away, it blows away the leaves and particles. This is a job for two.
- Rinse berries.
- Put 2 quarts of berries in a pot with enough water to reach the top layer of berries.
- Bring to a boil and reduce heat to a simmer and cook until the berries are splitting and losing their color.
- Strain through a jelly bag. Fine mesh bags are available from a paint store.
- Measure 6 cups of juice and heat to a boil, reduce heat, add 4 cups of sugar and bring the temperature to 8 degrees above boiling point. My thermometer shows boiling at 214 at King William’s elevation. This is the jelling point.
- Pour into sterilized jelly jars.
Got agarita stories or recipes to share? Leave them in the comments.