Growing mahonia

Posted: Monday 25 November 2013
by Adam Pasco

When the piercing November sunshine does burn through a cloudy sky, what a difference it makes to our gardens.

When the piercing November sunshine does burn through a cloudy sky, what a difference it makes to our gardens. Looking out of the window on Saturday afternoon as the clouds cleared, it was as if someone had turned on a spotlight, with brilliant - almost horizontal - light transforming everything it touched in a blaze of colour.

Caught in the crossfire was one of my favourite shrubs at this time of year: mahonia.

Shrubby mahonias such as ‘Charity' always look glorious, their yellow plumes surging up from the tip of every stem. Several neighbours have these in their front gardens, with one telling me this week that they planted a group of them alongside firethorn (pyracantha) to produce an impervious barrier to deter intruders – and a very attractive planting combination they make too.

My childhood garden had a low hedge of Mahonia aquifolium dividing our front garden from the neighbours. Once its autumn flowers were over, each head developed a display of small purplish-black fruits, giving the shrub its common name of Oregon Grape, a nod to its North American origins.

Anyone looking for a good form of Mahonia aquifolium should check out the award-winning form called 'Apollo'. Although it only grows to about 1m at most, it's a useful evergreen shrub for small spaces. However, It's the taller-growing hybrids of Mahonia x media such as 'Charity', 'Buckland', 'Lionel Fortescue', 'Underway' and 'Winter Sun' that I like most. Although they can reach great heights of up to 4m, a little pruning can easily keep them to around 2.5m, and help create impressive architectural plant features for a seasonal focal point in a border. Pruning just requires the removal of one or two or the oldest/tallest/woodiest shoots each year, creating space for new shoots developing from the base.

As my formative training in horticulture was growing shrubs on a nursery in Knaphill, Surrey, I'm delighted to see shrubs enjoying something of a revival after the preoccupation many have had with perennials over the past few years. And what a pleasure it was to see Mahonia 'Soft Caress' being awarded the accolade of RHS Chelsea Flower Show Plant of the Year for 2013. Judged by an impressive panel of experts, winning this award certainly makes 'Soft Caress' a plant of merit, putting shrubs back on the agenda.

Unlike the spiky, holly-like leaves of most mahonias, 'Soft Caress' is completely different. As its name suggests, this evergreen mahonia is soft to the touch. And in case you're wondering about its parentage, its full Latin name is quite a mouthful – Mahonia eurybracteata subsp. ganpinensis ‘Soft Caress'. It's a compact shrub too, only growing to about 1m, so perfect for small gardens.

'Soft Caress' has already made itself at home in my garden, and I'm hoping this and other shrubs will now get the publicity they deserve. Shrubs really are great value too. They aren't expensive to buy, and provide structure, colour and interest for many, many years. What more could any gardener ask for?

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Talkback: Growing mahonia
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Blubell 27/12/2013 at 20:29

I have two mahonias in my front garden Charity and an old fellow not sure of his name. He is very leggy and I as m going to have to bite the bullet after flowering and cut hard back. The mahonia forms part of as hedge so will look odd for a while. Can anyone advise how much I can expect it to grow in as year as this might influence how much I cut back?

Verdun 27/12/2013 at 21:08

Hiya blubell, 

Firstly you can cut as hard as you like.  It will regrow very happily. Mahonias do naturally become leggy, even ugly. I have rejuvenated quite a few simply by cutting hard back.  One was almost treelike in a friend's garden....thin, leggy and awful.  It is now bushy and free flowering.  Prune every year to keep compact.

Its hard to say how many feet it will grow back in one year.  How tall is it now?  I would expect a 10' shrub cut back to 5' would grow at least 2'.  I cut a mahonia that formed part of an open boundary to 2' using a sharp saw.  It is now kept to 5 or 6 feet.  

Prune after flowering.....actually I would delay until early spring if it's flowering now.  

Hostafan1 28/12/2013 at 11:26

I agree with Verdun, you can cut back as far as you like. I prefer to cut roughly a third of the stems right out each year until it's all under control. 

Blubell 28/12/2013 at 15:35

Thank you. I cut the flowering stems back last year but not enough. It's about 5ft now and very leggy with lots of foliage at the bottom and flowering at the top. 

Thank you for advice will wait for spring and report back next year !