Perhaps enough


To hear my wife tell it, I am barely in control of my impulses when it comes to the garden. There was a time, not too many years ago, when she supposed that she had some influence, but I think this thought has been abandoned, and now she only hopes I will not make too big a mess of things. She threatens to prune any branch that strays over any of the garden’s paths (below), and hopes this threat is enough to deter me from going too far over the deep end.The path to enter the back garden

I insist that I am in full control, despite much evidence to the contrary. I am not compelled to plant one of everything, and in fact many purchases are greatly considered. It is true that collections in the garden are too numerous, but I swear that a time or two I’ve been known to stop short of collecting one of every possible available plant. There are only thirty, maybe thirty-five Japanese maples in the garden, out of hundreds that are possible. So what if the collection continues to grow with maples growing in pots on the patios.

Then there are grape hollies (Mahonia). Recently, I got the itch to add ‘Beijing Beauty’ after seeing a photo in a catalog. But, when I found a source for more money than seemed reasonable, I opted to hold off. How long I can manage without, we’ll see.Soft Caress mahonia flowering in early October

There are times when, instead of adding to a collection, the number actually goes down. Finally, I’ve given up on narrow leafed mahonias ‘Soft Caress’ (above) and ‘Narihira’ (Mahonia eurybracteata), that have regularly failed to survive both cold and mild winters. When ‘Soft Caress’ survived for a few years, much of the year was spent in recovery, and finally I was convinced that life is too short to tangle with plants that perform poorly.

Winter Sun mahonia grows with an upright form, quite different from the late sinter flowering leatherleaf mahonia.
Winter Sun mahonia grows with an upright form, quite different from the late winter flowering leatherleaf mahonia. Winter Sun flowers from late November through December, with blooms often persisting into early January.

Though late autumn flowering hybrid mahonias are not rated for greater cold hardiness than ‘Soft Caress’, I’ve had little problem with ‘Winter Sun’ and ‘Charity’ (Mahonia x media) in temperatures much colder. After success with these, and splendid late autumn flowers, I added the very similar ‘Underway’, which finally convinced me that there is so little difference that there is no reason to add ‘Lionel Fortescue’ or ‘Marvel’ (which I believe is incorrectly identified as M. eurybracteata, but appears to be another Mahonia x media hybrid). However, if someone puts in a good word, my mind could easily be changed.

Charity mahonia has been a bit slower to flower in full sun. Racemes are longer than ones on Winter Sun, but this could be due to site conditions.
Charity mahonia has been a bit slower to flower in full sun. Racemes are longer than ones on Winter Sun, but this could be due to site conditions.

I am somewhat disappointed that ‘Underway’ will fail to flower this year. It is in excellent health, but shows no sign of blooming while others are at their peak. As for distinguishing one hybrid mahonia from the others, I haven’t a clue. Differing lengths of flowering racemes seem most dependent on sunlight exposure, with racemes shorter with more shade. Perhaps one will grow taller (or wider) than others. Certainly, there are differences, but not big ones from what I’ve seen.

The late winter, early spring flowering leatherleaf mahonia (Mahonia bealei) is a keeper, sturdy and a dependable bloomer in mid March and sometimes earlier in a mild late winter. I cannot argue with those insisting it is potentially invasive. Yellow flowers are followed by small, grape-like fruits which are promptly plucked by birds as soon as they ripen. Certainly, seedlings don’t come up everywhere, so perhaps invasive is too strong a term, but several have been allowed to grow while others are regularly weeded out.

Mahonia bealei
Leatherleaf mahonia will often begin to show a glimpse in late January if temperatures are mild. With consistently cold weather, early March flowering is expected.

Though foliage of Leatherleaf and the Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium) have dissimilar foliage, their spreading habits are well suited to informal gardens. While autumn flowering hybrids grow more upright, these sprawl, requiring considerably more space. Other, low growing mahonias that are commonly available are not sufficiently cold hardy for the coldest Virginia winters, so for now, further collecting of mahonias is on hold until a reasonably priced ‘Beijing Beauty’ can be found.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Debbie says:

    leatherleaf mahonia is definitely invasive here in southern Shenandoah County. I live on a mountain that is speckled with it! No houses close by, that I can see, that planted it originally.

    1. Dave says:

      I planted leatherleaf mahonia long before there was discussion of invasive plants. I have not seen any seedlings outside the boundaries of the garden, but suspect that this is inevitable. The question is, should a few scattered seedlings qualify as invasive? I cannot see evidence that these are displacing native flora, though I have no doubt there are climates where mahonias might spread more vigorously. I don’t know if the late autumn flowering hybrids have sterile seed or not, but in this area the flowers are not often pollinated (with the scarcity of bees in late November and December), so fruits (and seeds) rarely develop.

  2. sweetk8 says:

    Thank you for a very insightful analysis of Mahonia. I really don’t understand the attraction.
    They are available here in southern Finland where much hardier specimens grow well – Despite recommendations that we should add them to one of our garden sites, I have opted to not include Mahonia.
    One of my main criteria (with slight exception) has always been to only include specimens which can perform and survive without constant coddling.
    I’d make room for Japanese Maples rather than Mahonia any day of the week. Another item we can’t seem to be rid of – Lupins! Every color growing here and I can’t kill them fast enough.
    Thanks again!

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