Make room for mahonia These prickly evergreens have beefriendly flowers that are a precious addition to autumn borders
These prickly evergreens have bee-friendly flowers that are a precious addition to autumn and winter borders, says Val Bourne
Mahonias tend to be handsome evergreen shrubs with yellow f lowers between autumn and spring, so they make good additions to the garden when little else is f lowering. Closely related to berberis, most have prickly foliage, although their stems are smooth. There are 70 species in all and, like many plants, they found themselves on opposite sides of the world when America and Asia separated as a result of continental drift. They are named for Bernard McMahon (1775-1816), an Irish horticulturist who settled in Philadelphia in 1797, aged 21. The most widely grown American species is the spring-f lowering Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium), a low-growing, suckering evergreen whose clusters of yellow f lowers are followed by blue-black berries. Introduced into Britain in 1823, it’s very hardy and often used in municipal planting schemes. The best garden form of M. aquifolium is ‘Apollo’. Dense, soft-yellow flower clusters are framed by glossy green, holly-like foliage that reddens once temperatures fall. You’ll also notice a lily-of-the-valley scent from the f lowers, held on red stalks that match the foliage.
The most statuesque mahonias are Asian and these tend to f lower in winter. M. oiwakensis lomariifolia is one of the finest, a species from Yunnan in southwest China. Seeds were introduced to Britain in 1931 and one of the first to grow it was Lawrence Johnston, owner of Hidcote Manor in Gloucestershire. His original plant still flourishes there, in a very sheltered position against a wall. It has an open habit and long toothed leaves, with clusters of rich yellow flower spikes from mid-autumn to midwinter. In the 1950s this crossed with highly scented M. japonica and produced seedlings on the Slieve Donard Nursery in Northern Ireland. Some of these seedlings were purchased by Messrs L R Russell’s Richmond Nursery in Surrey and passed on to Sir Eric Savill, creator of the woodland garden in Windsor Great Park. The best seedling was named M. media ‘Charity’ by Sir Eric, due to Mr Russell’s generosity. Leslie Slinger, who owned the Slieve Donard Nursery, got little reward from this terrific plant. He realised his mistake and finally named ‘Winter Sun’ in 1984, which has brighter yellow flowers. Purists prefer the more upright, brilliant yellow flowers of ‘Lionel Fortescue’ – named after the man who established The Garden House in Devon, a site for more hybrid seedlings. ‘Buckland’ is also from The Garden House, with pale yellow flowers. These last three (hardy) cultivars have AGMs and produce scented winter flowers November to February. One mahonia that isn’t prickly – M. eurybracteata ganpinensis ‘Soft Caress’ – was voted Plant of the Year at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show
Mahonias can produce flowers in shadier positions as long as it’s not too dry
2013. It’s compact, reaching H1.2m (4ft) or so, and needs a sheltered position away from cold winds. It has narrow, almost feathery foliage and flowers from August onwards. Mahonias have one advantage over many winter-flowering shrubs: they can produce flowers in shadier positions as long as it’s not too dry. Most are prickly, so position away from paths and gateways. The taller ones have an architectural presence with a bolt of handsome green foliage. Many produce their scented yellow flowers in November – surely the dreariest month in the garden.
WINTER GOLD The upright flowers of Mahonia media ‘Lionel Fortescue’ produce a haze of brilliant yellow in the depths of winter
Flowering even in shade, mahonias make excellent partners for wine-red cornus stems