Today we had a brief respite between rain and wind storms. As I was strolling the yard making the pre-spring assessment of what needs to be done… a sweet fragrance caught my attention.
We love to collect the rare and interesting flora, often taking for granted the ‘common’ plant materials that provide the bones of the garden. This Oregon grape is found commonly in many Northwest Nurseries. Mahonia stands quietly in the garden most of the year, going unnoticed, while adding shape and structure. In early March it come to life with blooms in whorls of delicate and fragrant yellow flowers. It was such a treat to smell the sweet fragrance and see the delicate blooms on such a study plant that I wanted to share the outstanding qualities of this wonderfully common family of Mahonia.
The flowers will be replaced by waxy dark berries in grape like clusters in late summer into early fall. The evergreen foliage has an upright growth habit, with deep green, prickly leaves in arranged in whorls. In my part of the world, one of the most redeeming features to this shrub is that it is of no interest to rabbits, deer or elk, but the hummingbirds find it appealing.
CARE: In our yard we have several varieties and have used it in several places. Mahonia has thrived in a variety of light, moisture and soil situations. We may prune occasionally for shape. Our winter temperatures get down to single digits most years and wind speeds over 35 mph are not unusual. Mahonia takes it all in stride, showing few signs of wear and no signs of stress. No wonder it is among the ‘great plant picks’ collection.
We have collected several different varieties of mahonias, from common to exotic. In the back yard, in the spring….the 6-7 foot tall sturdy deep green leaves of Charity are beautifully contrasted with delicate sprays of pale pink candelabra primroses and the deeper rose double blooming perennial ’Corporal Baxter’ primroses. As summer approaches and the primrose blooms fade, they are replaced with a ground cover of dusty blue hostas and miniature ‘Twist of Lime’ hostas. To its left stands a vigorous ‘Coppertina’ physocarpus (ninebark) providing wonderful color contrast.
Most mahonia prefers full sun to dappled shade, is drought tolerant once established, but also does well in our very damp weather -3/4 of the year. It prefers a well-drained soil, but will tolerate sandy sites and clay. Most are hardy – zone 6 -7. Some varieties are more tender: ‘Dan Hinkley’ – a small slender growing plant and ‘gracilipesis’ – with beautiful blue-gray green foliage and silver undersides. We planted this one on a hill in hopes of being able to admire the underside as it grows.
There is a mahonia choice (or two) that is perfect in any garden.