In the Garden:
Leatherleaf mahonia is one of the first shrubs to bloom, weeks before winter is ready to end.
If you go outside and look for early signs of spring, the first ones you might find are the yellow blossoms of leatherleaf mahonia (Mahonia bealei). Like spires of hope that kinder weather is soon to come, mahonia's flowers give sluggish honeybees something to do and send me looking for a good place to plant another one in my yard.
Coarse Yet Comely
Native to the Pacific Northwest, leatherleaf mahonia is a bigger, more stately version of its more compact cousin Oregon grapeholly (M. aquifolium). I like leatherleaf because of its 6-foot height, the earliness of its fragrant blooms, and the strong blue of its berries, which birds love. I like the rough coarseness of this shrub's foliage, too, which is downright extreme compared to the more refined textures of common evergreens. The coarse texture is a real attention-getter toward the rear of your yard, or any place that needs an exotic touch.
Where to Grow
Leatherleaf mahonia grow best in USDA zones 6 to 8. They like a partial shade location because our hot summers can stress them. They look great planted in an open woodland area with rhododendrons and azaleas.
Transplanting mahonias is a piece of cake. Nurseries sell plants in containers, so all you need to do is dig a planting hole three times as wide as the pot (but not much deeper) and mix in about 4 inches of organic matter to help the soil hold moisture. Mahonias aren't picky about soil type or pH, but they do need plenty of moisture during their first year in the ground.
Established mahonias are satisfied being fed annually in early spring with an organic or controlled-release fertilizer. In late spring, keep plants growing vigorously by pruning out a couple of the oldest canes at ground level.
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