In praise of mahonia
Mahonia x media 'Charity', which grows in a neighbour's garden here in the Cotswolds
November can often look like the fag-end of the flowering year in the garden, but in a funny kind of way, it’s the beginning of the following spring. Just to make the point, a stalwart winter performer is already providing a warm-up act for next year’s crocuses and daffodils.
Mahonia is native to Asia and America, and closely related to berberis. Its bright yellow flowers start appearing in late October, and continue to provide nectar and pollen for honeybees and other pollinators until March.
It is named after the Irish-American horticulturalist Bernard McMahon, who was one of the two nurserymen appointed by Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, to care for the collection of plants brought back by Lewis and Clark from their exploration of western America.
I have to confess I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with mahonia. I inherited a massive clump of Mahonia japonica in my garden, and it used to take up about 40sq ft. I’ve hacked it back, but I still think its long, dark-green, prickly leaves look a bit alien here in the Cotswolds.
Some people might compare the scent of its flowers to lily of the valley, but it has an elusive perfume: you catch a waft of it by chance, rather than being able to bury your nose in the flowers and inhale the fragrance.
So why grow it? Well, any shrub that is in flower for five months is worth thinking about, and any shrub that attracts bees, and will flower for this long, and in winter, is especially worthy of consideration, if only by beekeepers.
It’s tough, too - not for nothing is it known rather insultingly as a “car-park plant”. Mahonia will flourish quite happily in shade, and are pretty much pest-free. Late spring frost may damage new shoots, but the plant should regenerate without too much trouble.
It’s a big plant and while it is tolerant of pruning, it needs a bit of space. My advice would be to avoid Mahonia japonica, which will eat your garden, and to look for Mahonia x media ‘Charity’, or its more fragrant cousins, Mahonia x media ‘Lionel Fortescue’, Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’ or Mahonia x media ‘Buckland’.
These last three were raised by Lionel Fortescue, founder of The Garden House at Buckland Monachorum in Devon, and of these, the one that bears his name has a reputation for being the first into bloom.
All the Mahonia x media hybrids hold their racemes of flowers high above the foliage, so that they look like brilliant yellow fireworks. They can get a bit leggy, but you can cut them back after they finish flowering in early spring to get them to resprout.
For those who don’t like spiny leaves and massive shrubs, a dwarf version has been available for the past couple of years. Its full name is Mahonia eurybracteata subsp.ganpinensis ‘Soft Caress’, but unsurprisingly, I’ve never heard anyone call it that. All you need to remember is the Mahonia ‘Soft Caress’ bit, which is how it will be labelled at the garden centre. It has long thin spineless leaves and the same scented yellow flowers.
It would take quite a few ‘Soft Caress’ quite a while to cover 40 sq ft, or provide a lot of forage for bees, but it’s a very pretty plant, and very tolerant of dry shade, so it’s worth thinking about. The only downside with ‘Soft Caress’ is the price. It’s protected by Plant Breeders Rights, which means unlicensed propagation is prohibited, so just one plant can cost between £14.99 (if you’re lucky) and £24.99.