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Marvellous Mahonias


By AndrewR


Mahonias are reliable shrubs for cheering us up in winter when many of them flower. Pictures of several different ones have appeared on GOY recently so I thought I would put together (with a little prompting from another member) a blog on some of the most common ones.

There are around seventy species of mahonia occurring in rocky places and woodland in the Himalayas, eastern Asia, north and central America. They have evergreen foliage, often very attractive with sharply toothed leaves (beware of weeding among old leaves, they are still sharp!), fragrant yellow flowers in the main (although at least one species has red flowers) followed by decorative blue, purple or black berries. In the more upright varieties, the deeply fissured bark can also be attractive. They prefer a moderately fertile, humus-rich, moist but well-drained soil in full or part shade but some will tolerate sunny positions as long as the soil remains moist. Some are quite hardy, taking at least -20C while others require a more sheltered spot, out of the way of cold winds. Although they can be planted at any time, spring and autumn are the best times to get them established while the soil is warm and moist. All are very tolerant of pruning; this should be done as the flowers fade, cutting immediately above a leaf joint.

M.aquifolium (common name Oregon Grape) is a suckering shrub around three feet high and up to five feet across. The flowers are borne in dense clusters in spring; leaves often turn red-purple in winter. This one can put up with pretty hostile conditions but will not grow or flower as well as in a better spot. The variety ‘Atropurpurea’ has leaves that turn a dark red-purple in winter while ‘Orange Flame’ has rust-orange young foliage, turning red in winter. ‘Smaragd’ is a smaller plant with large clusters of flowers as is ‘Apollo’ with bronzy young foliage. All these may suffer from mildew if the soil is too dry.

(Mahonia aquifolium – photo by kind permission of Chrispook)

M.confusa is another of the less hardy ones but should still tolerate
-10C in a sheltered spot when established. It can reach three to four feet with leaves more grey-green than the others. Flowers are carried from late summer into autumn.

M.fortunei is a slow-growing, upright shrub with upright flowers in early to mid autumn. It reaches four feet in height but is less hardy (although it will take about -10C)

M.japonica is much tougher and very shade tolerant. It can make a large shrub about six feet tall and up to ten feet across if left unpruned. The flowers are pale yellow and very fragrant, carried from late autumn to early spring. Leaves often take on hues of red in winter, especially in sun or on poorer soils. ‘Bealei’ has blue-green leaves and shorter raecemes of flowers.

(Mahonia japonica in Andrewr’s garden)

M.lomariifolia is another of less hardy ones, growing very erect (even described as lanky in one book) to ten feet. It flowers from late autumn into winter and needs protection from cold winds. There is a very good specimen growing in the entrance courtyard at Hidcote garden in Gloucestershire.

M.x media is a hybrid between the two previous species with the habit of M.lomariifolia but the hardiness of M.japonica. It starts flowering in late autumn and continues right through winter. ‘Buckland’ has bright yellow blooms, ‘Charity’ has particularly dense clusters of flowers, ‘Lionel Fortescue’ also has bright yellow blooms but held more upright and is often the first into flower of these cultivars, while in ‘Winter Sun’, they are dense but more arching. I have found these to get leggy quite quickly but very amenable to pruning.

(Mahonia x media – probably ‘Charity’ – in Andrewr’s garden)

M.napaulensis flowers in early to mid spring on a large shrub some eight feet tall and as much across. It is hardy to around -10C.

M.nervosa is dwarf at only eighteen inches high and suckers. The leaves are dark and glossy, often taking red tints in winter. The flowers are later in spring, continuing into early summer.

M.repens is even smaller at only one foot, again suckering to clumps around three feet across. The flowers are dark yellow, carried in spring but the leaves are more dull than glossy. It can take fairly dry soil and, with protection, will tolerate temperatures down to -15C.

M.x wagneri is a cross between the tender M.pinnata and M.aquifolium. It carries bright yellow flowers in spring over dull, dark green leaves. It has a spread of around three feet but is a little less in height. ‘Moseri’ has pale green leaves, often flushed pink or red, ‘Undulata’ is twice as tall at six feet and the leaves are a darker green with wavy margins.

I had hoped to include some photographs of the different species but only three have pictures on GOY and I don’t want to infringe copyrights by copying from other sites. I suggest you do a Google search for an image of any that take your fancy.

If you haven’t already planted one of these easy-to-please shrubs (or are considering getting another), I hope this list has been useful in narrowing the choice and clarifying the differences between them.

More blog posts by AndrewR

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Thanks Andrew!... excellent blog...It seems that if I was really conscientious about winter protection I could probably manage M.japonica in my garden ... however, I've always maintained that encouraging a plant to try to survive in hostile territory is tantamount to torture.. so I don't think I should try. . (Now if I had a lovely large solarium where I could winter it...I would not hesitate.) Thank you for this informative blog, and for confirming my initial decision not to try Mahonia..(must admit the flowers and berries are tempting.)

13 Dec, 2008


Great blog Andrew. Very informative.

13 Dec, 2008


Superb article. Thanks so much.

I have one M.lomariifolia and it is awesome.

M. fortuniei and M. confusa I am unfamiliar with, but probably would do okay in my climate zone.

14 Dec, 2008


I have one I brought from the old garden. It's still in a pot but I think one of the dwarf species would suit my garden now.

16 Dec, 2008


Thanks for this Andrewr.
Sorry it took me a while to catch up with it.
Strange how I can completely miss some things on GoY.
Very useful to have the detail of the various Mahonias.

Janette has recently uploaded a lovely Mahonia photo.
Do you happen to know if the berries are poisonous ?

Thank you again for writing this so well. :o)

16 Dec, 2008


Apparently, the berries of mahonia aquifolium can be made into a jelly (that tastes like blackcurrant) - not sure about the other species, my book only mentioned this one

16 Dec, 2008


Thanks ~
That's interesting. :o)

16 Dec, 2008


I wish I had a perfect memory...but I do recall a thread on here about mahonia berries looking like concord grapes and the fact that they were edible. Now I'm going to be stewing til I remember where it was!!

17 Dec, 2008


Mahonia berries are definately edible and mixed with apples can make a superb jelly.

They can also be made into a good wine. Hic.

17 Dec, 2008


Thank you for confirming that.
I was mostly concerned in case my dog picked up any of the berries. Hic. :o)

17 Dec, 2008


Thanks AndrewR, a great post with useful information on one of my favourite evergreens.
I'd just like to add my favourite, the Leatherleaf Mahonia (M.Bealei) one of the less popular but in my opinion one of the most spectacular when in flower.
The contrast between the very hard, sharp, dark green leaves and the bright yellow racemes make the flowers look almost fluorescent on a dull day.
I'll try and post a photo of my young plant in the next few days :0)

23 Dec, 2008


Fleurdemai ~
Could you please put a comment here when your photo of Leatherwood Mahonia is on GoY. Don't want to miss it.
Thanks. :o)

23 Dec, 2008


Two photos now posted.
I forgot to add, there is also the bonus that the scent is absolute heaven...

23 Dec, 2008


Thanks. I'll take a look :o)

23 Dec, 2008


I'm pleased some photos are in this blog now.
Looks lovely :o)
Really glad this blog has been written because I keep sending members to have a look. Latest being from a photo recently uploaded by Sewingkilla.
Thanks for this blog. :o)

5 Jan, 2009


thanks for this Andrew still not sure which mine is it was a gift from my neighbour and was worried last year as when i planted it i knocked the top off!! So was really pleased when i went to take the photo on here that it was looking so good! I have another one too think its the aquifolium it smells heavenly!

6 Jan, 2009


Glad you found this blog Sewingkilla.
I find it one of the most useful blogs for reference. :o)
Sounds like you accidentally did a very professional job of pruning your mahonia. Lol.

6 Jan, 2009


Great blog! i feel i can make a good decision now, thanks!.

28 Sep, 2009


Very useful Andrew, I know I'm a little late lol:-) Do you think japonica would be ok in an east facing border, or would it do better in more sun? Yours looks beautiful:-)

26 Mar, 2011


Bornagain - I am growing M.japonica facing east (see photo above). It would probably carry more flowers in a sunnier position but it is a healthy plant and has been there for many years

26 Mar, 2011



27 Mar, 2011


Very helpful...I may try the Mahonia Japonica...didn't do too well with the Charity....leaves fell off after a few months leaving a bare twig...oh dear. It was in a semi-shady position, but my soil has a clay quality to it, so whether it didn't like soil type, who knows.

13 Jun, 2011


Thanks once again Andrew. I have seen a couple of Mahonias of the smaller kind that I will look out for. I used to have M. Aquifolium and Charity in my other very large garden and I love them.

30 Dec, 2013


I have bought M henryii to plant in a new garden. In my last garden I had what I thought was M lomarifolia but having seen the description it couldn't have been because it was a lovely compact shrub in a city courtyard garden

Planted just off the deck the birds loved it and it provided continual entertainment from little white eyes daintily flitting through its branches

I can't find any reference to M henryii anywhere - but from the photos - it is arriving from the nursery today - it looks suspiciously like my last one. (I am in NZ)

Wonder if this is another devel from Charity. Anyone know?

1 Aug, 2014


Jenny - I've not come across M. henryii and it is only New Zealand websites that are mentioning it, so I am unable to help.

1 Aug, 2014


Wonder if Mahonia henryii could be Mahonia herveyi ( = Mahonia repens var rotundifolia, according to the Standard Cyclopaedia of Horticulture 1947)??? But from a quick look this seems a lot less spiny leaved than the only picture of "henryii" on the net. Similar small 1 m size though.

17 Sep, 2014

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