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All You Need to Know About Mahonias

Published on November 10th 2019

by AlanGardenMaster. All rights reserved

Mahonia Winter Sun flowers
Few garden plants are known by their Latin name rather than by their common name. Mahonia is one of that select bunch.
A close up of a Mahonia plant with yellow flowers


Mahonia spp.

Its common name is the Oregon Grape, but that mostly refers to the spreading ground covering types. I'll cover them in this piece, but they mainly flower in spring.
It's the varieties that flower this month that I want to draw your attention to.
A yellow mahonia flower in front of a tree
_Mahoina x media_ 'Charity'

Late Autumn Bloomers

These aren't a garment that used to be worn to keep yourself warm! I'm referring to mahonias that wait until autumn to open their spectacular flowers.
Thickly packed spikes of yellow blooms top the Mahonia x media hybrids in November. These are hybrids between Mahonia japonica and Mahonia lomariifolia.
These hybrids have magnificent but spiky evergreen leaves. In late autumn you'll find lemon yellow flowers at the top of every shoot that bees cannot resist.
There are several named varieties. The most widely available is called 'Charity'.
A Mahonia plant in a garden
_Mahonia x media_ 'Charity'
'Winter Sun' (see title pic) is equally as excellent, and if I'm honest I would make room in my garden for 'Buckland' and 'Lionel Fortescue' too! They are all fantastic varieties, with only 'Lionel Fortescue' looking noticeably different to me with longer drooping flower spikes.
Mahonia x media 'Buckland'
_Mahonia x media_ 'Buckland'
Sadly none of these have the strong sweet scent of Mahonia japonica, which I'll come to in a moment.
Plant these hybrids where they have space to grow to 2-2.5 metres high. This should take seven to eight years.
Mahonia x media 'Lionel Fortescue' in snow
_Mahonia x media_ 'Lionel Fortescue' in snow
Put them towards the back of a border to screen unsightly objects. They are useful for hiding your unsightly compost bins, dustbins, oil or gas tanks.
Mahonia grow well in the shade but also in full sun, provided that the soil doesn't get too dry in summer.
In my previous garden, I had a fully grown Mahonia 'Charity', and after flowering, it would produce masses of berries. As soon as they ripened to a lovely blue colour, they were scoffed by blackbirds, who I was happy to share them with!

Mahonia japonica

Its name suggests that this Mahonia is originally from Japan. Although it has long been cultivated there, it is actually a native of China.
Flowering after the hybrids have finished, M. japonica continues the Mahonia season, flowering from late winter through until spring.
Mahonia japonica has a squat, spreading growth habit and will end up being around shoulder height and perhaps 2 - 3 metres wide when ten years old.
Mahonia japonica bush
_Mahonia japonica_
The scent from the weeping flower spikes is unbelievable. It is one of the sweetest scents in the garden! A few spikes in a glass of water will quickly fill a room with its lily of the valley like scent.
Occasionally this Mahonia variety will delight you with autumn leaf colour even though it is an evergreen shrub.
red with green leaves
Startling autumn leaf colour of _Mahonia japonica_

Soft Leaf Mahonia

Modern-day plant hunters have brought new Mahonias back from south-east Asia in recent years, and some of these are turning heads.
The variety Soft Caress is a real beauty!
We'll call it 'Soft Caress' because that aptly describes the feel of it. But that's an abbreviation of its real name which is (takes a deep breath) Mahonia eurybracteata subsp. ganpinensis 'Soft Caress' (PBR). Quite a name!
It has soft, finger-like leaves and at first glance looks nothing like any other Mahonia.
Mahonia Soft Caress flowers and leaves
_Mahonia_ 'Soft Caress' flowers and leaves
This recent introduction is a superb hardy evergreen foliage plant. It's worth growing for those finger-like leaves alone, but in November it has short spikes at the top of each shoot that are covered in tiny yellow blooms.
I've grown one in a big pot for quite a few years now, and it makes an easy plant to display in part or full shade.
A Mahonia 'Soft Caress' plant in a pot
Mahonia 'Soft Caress' in a pot
I've learnt that it doesn't mind being pruned hard and will bounce back quickly. That's a useful feature, since the largest plant that I have seen is in American plant hunter Dan Hinkley's garden, and it's about 1 m x 3 m.

Oregon Grapes

Mahonias grow wild on the west coast of North America and Asia. Those that grow wild in the woods of America are low growing.
They often create an evergreen carpet under stately firs, hemlock, redwoods and spruce trees.
Mahonia aquifolium, repens, nervosa and pumila are from America.
But it is only forms of Mahonia aquifolium that are widely planted in the UK, and mostly in municipal roadside plantings.
Mahonia nervosa in a forest
_Mahonia nervosa_ in a forest
Two excellent forms of Mahonia aquifolium to look out for are 'Apollo' and 'Smaragd'. If you see them, find a place for them in your garden!
Mahonia flowers
_Mahonia aquifolium_ 'Apollo' flowers
These all flower in spring and have flowers that form at the top of shoots in a fist-like cluster. Flowers are followed by blue berries, which are again a good source of food for wildlife.
Mahonia aquifolium berries
_Mahonia aquifolium_ berries

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