Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Damn Good Plants - Mahonia x media 'Winters Sun'

For us at the garden center, Thanksgiving marks the end of the garden shopping calender.  The customers switch gears from working outside in the garden to hanging swags and trimming the Christmas tree. But, for a few who venture out into the quiet shrub sales area, you'll be greeted by the blooming event of Mahonia's.

Often overlooked during the growing season, mainly because of its prickly holly like leaves, Mahonia's put on a show of bright sulfur yellow flowers that sprays out like water from a fountain.  Though missed by fair weather gardeners, die hard types still looking for horticultural fix, get to benefit from this explosion of color.  While the blooming season is magnificent, its habit and display of whorled frond-like foliage, makes for a year round, stately statuesque presence in any garden.

The Mahonia family contains about 70 species often found in woodlands from the Himalayas, to East and Central Asia and into the America's.  Commonly referred to as Grape Hollies, the blue-black semi-edible berries hang in clusters after flowering.  Related to Barberries, Mahonia's have a bright yellow inner bark that contains an alkaloid called Berberine, which is responsible for the color.  The colorant has long been used to dye clothing, wool and leather but is now being studied for its potential medicinal use in reducing cancer growths, lowering cholesterol and over coming insulin resistance.

Mahonia x media (media - meaning middle, or between, referring to the mix of two parents) was a result of a accidental cross between Mahonia japonica and Mahonia lomariifolia that occurred naturally.  Slieve Donard Nursery in Co. Down, Ireland was the birthplace of Mahonia x media, starting in 1952 with the discovery of seedlings showing slight foliage variations.  Six of the seedlings were selected for planting by Sir Eric Savill, who at the time was Director of Forestry to the crown estate of Windsor Great Parks, in England.  When these seedlings began to flower in 1957 it became evident that they were different from what the parent plants were.  The first seedling to make it to market was named 'Charity',and can still be found to this day at Savill Gardens.

'Winters Sun' came from the same linage as 'Charity' and became registered in 1966 after it showed a greater dense, compact growing habit when compared to others in the 'x media' group.  The bright yellow flowers also have a better fragrance, an added benefit for any early winter garden.   I have seen 'Winters Sun' flourishing in an unprotected, full sun location with little sign of stress, provided it has good access to moisture during the hot summer months.  However, all Mahonia's would favor the filtered sun of a cool, woodland garden.  Once established, they can tolerate drought for an extended period with little consequence.   In my garden, it has proved successful in deterring kids from jumping the fence looking for a short-cut around the neighborhood.   Apart from that, it also works well on deer that also dislike it presence.  Growing to a large 8 to 10 ft vase shaped form, it requires little pruning, though some stems can be reduced back after flowering to encourage a shorter, bushy habit.

I have read some comments about Mahonia's needs to cross-pollinate to produce berries, though doesn't seem to be mentioned enough to draw a strong conclusion.  It would still be advisable to include another specimen of its own species or one of a compatible species to ensure berry set.  One reference I read highly recommended our own native Oregon Grape Holly, Mahonia aquifolium, a beautiful, lower growing species, as a suitable partner for Mahonia x media.

Both 'Charity' and 'Winters Sun' are guaranteed to provide season round interest.  Their architectural presence and explosion of color will anchor them as a focal point from which to design other combinations from.  While it's not a shrub that will hug you back should you have the urge to show it some affection, it will grow into a loyal work horse of the garden, commanding respect while extending the season of interest, well into early winter.






8 comments:

  1. My mahonias look amazing right now, in full flower. I have M.bealei and M x media. Planted at the same time but bealei is much larger, 7 ft tall.It amazes me that customers come into the garden center and think Mahonias are ugly! I try to convince them otherwise! Too bad I can't post a pic of the two in my garden.

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    1. I finally got some good stock of Mahonia bealei from a grower in Georgia this year. It's making me rethink about planting one in my own garden. All the stock that comes in from the west coast doesn't do it any justice, too long and leggy. I need to get some pictures off you to see how I could work one in to my own garden. Thank god I back onto a common area that no sees apart from me.
      Thanks for reading.

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  2. I tried mahonia aquifolium and had a disaster with them. They survived our southern New England weather, but they never looked like anything other than bomb victims. The foliage was terribly winter burned and no better in summer. I did not have the filtered sun of a cool woodland garden, but they were shaded in afternoon on the east side of the house. This plant just did not want to be in my garden, and I accept that, but I'm disappointed when I see your photos of the dramatic Winter's Sun! Amazing plant.

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    1. My success Mahonia aquifolium has also been so so! I've never had a strong urge to include one in my garden but after reading up on pollination it has me me wonder. I've been playing around with the idea of planting M.bealei nearby but room is getting tight. Thanks for your comments.

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  3. Oregon Grape is a native plant for us as well and is excellent in the dry scape garden. In a large area it makes a great medium high ground cover that looks good all year.

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  4. This Mahonia may be a nice option for my own front yard landscaping. We had to form a mostly blank slate in 2005, salvaging just one 15 foot magnolia. Not sure why ... but I planted much more deciduous than ever before, and I generally like a nice cover of evergreen in winter. There's no more room for trees, but I have plenty of space for smaller evergreen plants.

    MDV
    Oregon

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    1. I started my garden with the belief that you could landscape with nothing but deciduous plants Too. Soon, I began to realize that I needed the presence of evergreens in the winter to continue interest. I'm back to about 40/60 evergreen to deciduous, but would also like to bring in more smaller evergreens as space is really at a premium. Thanks for reading.

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  5. I'm undecided about mahonia. I don't love them but appreciate their interesting structure. This will probably sound weird, but they always remind me of camellias because the first time I ever saw them growing was in a large public garden in South Carolina near a huge camellia. It's a good thing they hadn't been planted by the bathrooms. :o)

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