In the Garden:
Middle South
January, 2011
Regional Report

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Mahonia Hope, from a cross between two Asian species, blooms in late November with clusters of fragrant flowers.

New Hope for Mahonia

One of the things I like best about my new home is the outstanding views from the kitchen and the connection they provide to the surrounding countryside and the wildlife that live there. From the back window I can see a long stretch of the Reedy River, as well as the hillside beyond with its picturesque groups of evergreens and hardwoods.

If I'm lucky, I might also catch sight of one or both of the red-tail hawks that nest nearby. They're easy to spot when swooping through the treetops or down towards the river, and I keep a pair of binoculars handy for any chance to study these fascinating birds of prey.

This morning as I washed dishes, however, I was entertained by the antics of a half-dozen or more songbirds hopping from branch to branch in a thicket of shrubs at the garden's edge. I had spied a three-foot long snake skin among these same branches recently and I wondered what might happen if the birds found it too, but they steered clear of the prickly bush with its hidden surprise.

After the cardinals and wrens took flight and I finished my chore, I retrieved the skin as a prize for my nature box, an antique glass display case that holds children spellbound with its tiny nests, bones and other oddities.

The snake skin, wrapped securely around two branches of a leatherleaf mahonia (Mahonia bealei), would look menacing to some. Truth be told, the lifeless object was much less dangerous than its evergreen host.

To me, mahonia is a handsome shrub. Glossy leaves are divided into pairs of spiky leaflets along a central stem. This prickly foliage, which sometimes takes on a red or purple tint in cool weather, is overshadowed by racemes of brilliant yellow flowers in winter or early spring. The plum-colored fruits that follow are eagerly devoured by birds.

Unfortunately, the leatherleaf species has proved to be invasive in my area, as well as many others in the Middle South. We can still grow the shrub safely, though, by choosing from new cultivars that don't compromise the health of local environments.

Some of the best of these are the Mahonia x media hybrids. This selection of plants was developed from a cross between two Asian species, including one that is very similar to M. bealei. Each cultivar bears upright clusters of fragrant flowers that have a scent reminiscent of lily-of-the-valley.

The most popular and smallest cultivar is 'Winter Sun,' which grows four to five-feet tall and wide. It is the slightly larger 'Hope,' however, that is the favorite of my friend Todd Lasseigne, Executive Director of the J. Paul Criener Botanical Garden in Kernersville, North Carolina. Believing 'Hope' is the most overlooked of the group, Todd showcases it in the garden, where it is frequently in flower by Thanksgiving.

Other Mahonia x media hybrids include 'Buckland' and 'Charity,' which grow to a much larger fifteen-feet tall and twelve-feet wide; 'Faith,' which reaches six to ten-feet tall and six-feet wide; 'Lionel Fortescue,' similar in size to 'Hope;' and 'Underway,' at a more compact four to five-feet tall and wide.

For softer and less prickly foliage, look for an even more recent introduction, Mahonia eurybracteata 'Soft Caress.' This plant's flexible, slender leaves have an airiness that is similar to a dwarf bamboo.

Despite this unique appearance, 'Soft Caress' has the characteristic growth pattern of mahonia and is topped with the usual burst of fragrant yellow flowers in winter. Mature height and breadth is estimated at four-feet tall and wide, but this cultivar is so new experts can't predict its mature size with certainty.

All of these cultivars will perform best with full to filtered shade from mid-morning to late afternoon. Prepare the soil by incorporating several inches of organic material and other amendments as needed. Keep the root flare just above the native soil level when planting, and facilitate growth of a healthy root system in the first year with weekly irrigation when rain is scarce.


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