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Plant Profile: Mahonia

October 24, 2014

Setting out to profile something as big as the Mahonia genus in a single blog post is pretty much impossible. But, by focusing on its virtues rather than bemoaning its various prickly traits, we can probably convince you to fall in love with this often despised plant.

Oh, and yes, there is at least one Mahonia that won’t poke you, but we’ll get to that a little later…

Mahonia Charity & Arthur Menzies

Mahonia ‘Charity’ and ‘Arthur Menzies’ grow quite tall, which is great for hummingbirds seeking their tasty yellow blooms in December & January. This beauty pops even more against the red trunk of a conifer in the Washington Park Arboretum Winter Garden.

To begin, a bit about the genus’ greatness:

  • Pollinator feed: Many Mahonia bloom during the dead of winter, when hummingbirds and other over-wintering wildlife desperately need forage.
  • Winter Interest: Those bright yellow flowers burst forth in winter, which is great to ease our visual doldrums. But, before and after those blooms, these plants are evergreen, which is critical to keeping your garden looking great when perennials are hiding underground and deciduous trees are bare.
  • Privacy & Protection: Taller plants in the genus may take a while to reach great heights, but when they do, they provide a bit of privacy even in tighter spaces. Plus, the spiny Mahonia leaves might just tell intruders that yours isn’t a window worth breaking.
  • Edible: Mahonia isn’t called Oregon Grape just because the berries look like grapes. In fact, those berries are edible, with a few possible exceptions. Theirs may not be the tastiest berry you’ll grow, but odds are fruit-eating songbirds and other wildlife will pick them clean fast. Plus, their berries are just plain pretty!
  • Native: There are any number of Mahonia native to many parts of the United States. Just double-check before you put one in. Some may be naturalized, rather than native to your area. And, some may be very aggressive spreaders (native or not).

Now, let’s look at some eye-candy at different times of year and on different varieties of the genus:

Mahonia Charity

In a mass planting, this tall Mahonia (likely ‘Charity’ or ‘Arthur Menzies’) has provided a buffer from the street as well as habitat and forage for wildlife.

Mahonia fruits and foliage

How about a close-up of the dripping clusters on that mass planting? Gorgeousness!

Arthur Menzies Mahonia

Young ‘Arthur Menzies’ Mahonia will hide the compost bin & offer blooms in the dead of winter. Just be patient, creating a thicket of tall Mahonia can take a few seasons.

Mahonia nervosa

How about something not so big? Mahonia nervosa is a great choice for spaces that need evergreen interest at ground level. Expect yellow blooms in early spring followed by purple berries like these. And unlike Mahonia aquifolium and Mahonia repens (not show), they don’t spread quite as aggressively.

Mahonia in Bloom in January

In January, the bright blooms on many Mahonia pop against the green foliage. Later, spring & summer flowering perennials will pop against green backdrops of this plant, even as its fruits form and evolve from green-white to deep black-purple.

So if you think Mahonia still means plain ole green, spiny foliage with bursts of yellow blooms in winter, get ready to think again. Even though they are Berberis (read: Barberry), there’s more than one surprise coming…

Mahonia gracilipes

Mahonia gracilipes has a stunning reddish and yellow bloom from late spring through early autumn, plus the under sides of this beauty’s leaves are beautiful white. Surprise! (We have yet to see this one fruit, and if it does fruit, we cannot guarantee that its fruits are edible.)

Mahonia 'Soft Caress'

Mahonia ‘Soft Caress’ is a new cultivar known for its lack of spines. Ours bloomed yellow in summer, but this is known to bloom in spring. Maybe we’ll get both on this newbie!

If you’re ready to add Mahonia to your garden, get in touch for ordering information today.

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