If winter zaps your garden into shades of brown and saps your gardening enthusiasm, let Mahonia brighten things up.
A small-to-medium-sized shrub, mahonia contents itself as a background player in summer and fall. But come winter, its evergreen leaves steal the show amid the starkness of the colder season. And in late fall or winter, it really comes to life with canary-yellow flowers, which appear in showy upright sprays or in clusters along its branches.
At a time when little else may be flowering, on warm winter days when bees are active, mahonia flowers provide sustenance, making it a good pollinator plant too. After pollination, the flowers give way to blue, blue-black, or red berries beloved by birds.
Most mahonias thrive in shade or part shade with morning sun, and deer usually stay away. Its prickly leaves can poke, so mahonia should be planted away from paths or seating areas, and you’ll want to wear gloves when pruning or working around it.
Cultivar ‘Soft Caress’ is friendlier, with long, narrow leaves that don’t bite; however, deer may find this variety more palatable. Mahonia thrives in mild-winter climates, in U.S. hardiness zones 7-9, but Pacific Northwest native Mahonia aquifolium can overwinter in zone 5.
Plant mahonia in fall or spring and water regularly to establish. Then watch it bring your winter garden to life.
‘Marvel’ mahonia (Mahonia x media ‘Marvel’)
© Pam Penick
An upright, handsome evergreen, ‘Marvel’ mahonia makes a good accent plant, or grow in groups for a natural-looking hedge. Extravagant sprays of zingy yellow flowers are sure to brighten your borders in late winter. Lovely clusters of glaucous berries follow. Hardiness zones 6-9.
‘Soft Caress’ mahonia (Mahonia eurybracteata ‘Soft Caress’)
© Pam Penick
Standing at around 3 feet tall and wide, ‘Soft Caress’ mahonia boasts narrow, spineless leaves that resemble those of bamboo. Planted en masse, it’s perfect for an Asian-style or tropicalesque garden, and it looks great in containers too. Look out for short spikes of yellow flowers in late fall. Hardiness zones 7-9.
Chinese mahonia (Mahonia fortunei)
© Pam Penick
Chinese mahonia’s bushy, compact shape makes it a good choice for a shade-loving, low hedge. Graceful, narrow leaves aren’t as prickly as some, but they can still surprise you if you stick your hand into one. Bright-yellow flowers appear in fall, but lack the showiness of other species so grow this one for its foliage instead. Hardiness zones 7-10.
Oregon grape holly (Mahonia aquifolium)
© James De Mers Pixabay
Native to the Pacific Northwest, Oregon grape holly may be the best-known mahonia, and it grows well in many parts of the U.S., especially regions with acidic soil. The glossy, spine-tipped leaves will bite if given a chance, and they can turn a rusty reddish bronze in the fall. Oregon grape holly spreads via underground suckers and forms a thicket over time. Cut back unwanted suckers to keep it in bounds. Hardiness zones 5-8.
Agarita (Mahonia trifoliolata)
Native to Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, agarita thrives in full sun or part shade and alkaline soil and takes extreme heat in its stride. Gray-green, holly-like leaves look especially attractive amid frost-browned grasses. From late winter into spring, fragrant golden flowers cluster along the branches, followed by red berries, which are snacked on by birds. Hardiness zones 7-9.