Gardening should be fun and bring joy to our lives. That is why I am always happy to share a plant that thrives in our climate, grows beautifully without a lot of fuss, and that won’t attract the attention hungry deer looking for the salad bar. Allow me to share one of my favorites….
Lush, evergreen mounds of Oregon grape holly grew for decades along the grand staircase linking the Italian Gardens to the Japanese Garden at Maymont Park in Richmond. I was always tempted to pick and taste their lush purple drupes in early summer, when I visited as a child. But of course, I wasn’t allowed to touch them. The mahonia made such an impression on me, even at a young age, that I always want a clump or two of this beautiful shrub in my garden.
Oregon Grape Holly, formerly known as Mahonia aquifolium, and now named Berberis aquifolium, is native to the western coast of North America, from Alaska south to California. Evergreen and hardy to Zone 5, it is the state flower of Oregon.
Native cultures along our west coast used every part of the Mahonia shrub. Its drupes are edible, although very tart. They can be converted to juice, jelly, or eaten out of hand. They also make a beautiful purple dye. The inner bark can be rendered to a yellow dye. Parts of the plant are medicinal.
In its native Pacific Northwest, Mahonia grows as an understory shrub beneath towering Douglas fir and pine trees. They prefer partial shade and rich, acidic soil. Drought tolerant, they thrive in a range of growing conditions from full sun to deep shade. Their versatility has fueled their popularity in the nursery trade, and they are widely available. This is a tough shrub, forming wide multi-stemmed clumps, but staying neatly 5’-7’ high at maturity. Never shear this shrub to shape it. Cut back entire stems or branches to control its size.
Mahonia shrubs command attention throughout the year. Their tough, shiny leaves provide texture and mass. They sparkle in the pale winter sunlight and make a beautiful vignette with evergreen ferns, ground covers or moss, and early bulbs. Panicles of bright yellow flowers emerge in late December and bloom through February, when little else is in bloom and most of the landscape lies dormant. Their leaves may turn orange or scarlet in response to the cold in mid-winter.
Mahonia flowers are an important nectar source for bees and other nectar loving insects who come out on warm winter days in search of food. Clusters of large purple drupes appear by early summer, followed by colorful new leaves and branches.
Birds love Mahonia fruits and spread seeds, so this shrub can naturalize in favorable conditions. Where you have a small group of Mahonia growing in moist, receptive soil, you’re likely to find a nursery of seedlings sprouting around them. These are deeply rooted, so transplant them within the first 12-18 months for greatest success.
Use Mahonia as an accent plant, a backdrop for beds and borders, or in hedgerows. It is dense, once established, and makes a beautiful, if shaggy, hedge. Individual leaves have multiple sharp prickles, much like a holly leaf. Established plants send up multiple stems.
While deer may graze on holly, they don’t graze on Berberis aquifolium leaves. We have lost flowers to grazing deer, from time to time. Mahonia won’t attract hungry deer, and it can serve as a dense, sharp barrier to help fence them out.
Young Mahonia shrubs may be grown in large containers on porch or patio and work well underplanted with winter blooming Violas or ferns. This is a highly ornamental, problem-free North American native shrub useful in many different situations. Several cultivars are available, but the species is also desirable. Related species and hybrids available in nurseries, such as Berberis eurybracteata ‘Soft Caress,’ may be more attractive to deer.
There is always a new, interesting shrub on the market begging for our attention. Oregon grape holly, the West Coast native, still outshines most of them in my garden. For toughness, beauty, wildlife value and ease of maintenance, it remains a personal favorite, growing a bit better and more dramatic each year.
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