Sweet Flowers of Winter

January 9, 2009 | By | Comments (18)

Leatherleaf
“Leatherleaf Mahonia”

Say “fragrant flowers” and what plant pops to mind? Gardenia? Daphne? Rose? Wisteria? Lilac? Good answers all, but there’s one very fragrant plant that’s all but ignored by the public. Maybe that’s because it blooms in winter when only the hardiest (or most bored) venture outside.

The flowers shown here belong to leatherleaf mahonia (Mahonia bealei), a very under-appreciated shrub in my estimation. Where it’s cold-hardy (down to at least -10 degrees) and has acid soil and afternoon shade, it’s a garden stalwart, tolerating heat and drought with little care. No pests seem to bother it.

There’s nothing wimpy about leatherleaf mahonia. It’s bold and it’s coarse — kinda like Clint Eastwood in his new movie, “Gran Torino.” (Note — For my driving test, I had to parallel-park my parents’ 1970 Ford Torino station wagon with fake wood siding. I am thus qualified to pilot an oil tanker into port anywhere in the world.) It makes a nice accent plant for a foundation planting when combined with plants with softer, smaller leaves, such as boxwood, yew, or liriope. It’s also good in shade gardens, because it likes shade.

Spiny, blue-green, leathery leaves remind you of holly, though the plant is actually related to barberry. They may be more than a foot long and consist of 7-15 leaflets, each up to 5 inches long. The evergreen foliage appears in tiers up and down multiple vertical stems that may eventually grow 10 feet tall. If a main stem grows too bare and lanky, you can “bush it up” by cutting it back to a lower tier of foliage. Cut back stems to different heights and don’t flat-top it, though. Remember — it’s a shrub, not a Marine. Personally, I like the slightly lanky look — it gives the plant a sculptural quality that sophisticated gardeners (like you) appreciate.

Blooms, Berries, Bees, and Birds

OK, let’s talk about the blooms. The ones here, photographed at Aldridge Botanical Gardens in Hoover, Alabama on January 9, 2009 are just ready to pop. Resting atop the tufts of foliage, the arching, spike-like clusters of showy, lemon-yellow flowers stand about 6 inches tall and wide.They’re extremely fragrant and on a mild winter day, bees are all over them. Folks farther north can expect to see blooms in February and March.

Bird lovers should love leatherleaf mahonia too, because the birds certainly do. The flowers give rise to clusters of plump, blue berries with a powdery sheen. They remind you of grapes and give the plant its other common name, “grape holly.” These fruits ripen earlier than you’d think, anywhere from April into June. Birds scarf them down like buttered popcorn at the movies while watching “Gran Torino,” which explains why so many seedlings sprout under trees and theatre seats. The seedlings aren’t invasive — they’re easy to pull up and discard if you’re an insensitive, brutish plant-hater like me. Do it while you’re watching those endless trailers.

Want a leatherleaf mahonia for your garden? Search under your trees or seats for seedlings. Ask a gardening friend to share. Buy one at your local garden center. Only stay out of my way when I’m trying to park that dang oil tanker. They don’t turn on a dime, you know.

COMMENTS

  1. Grumpy Gardener (His Benevolence)

    Nope.

    May 11, 2011 at 2:12 pm
  2. Grumpy Gardener (His Benevolence)

    Well, the leaves do have short spines, so I wouldn’t place the plant next to a sitting area or where people walk.

    January 18, 2011 at 10:01 am
  3. firepits

    The flowers look good but I just removed last winter as I had plans for growing new plants. Nice one but the leaves seem prickly.

    January 18, 2011 at 5:17 am
  4. Grumpy Gardener (His Benevolence)

    If it’s very hot where you are right now, your mahonias in pots could be stressed. I would put them where they get light shade throughout the day and stay consistently moist.

    July 7, 2010 at 5:46 pm
  5. Sue

    Had to dig up my 3 young mahonias when we cut some trees near them and we were afraid for their lives. They now have much more sun and are still in their temporary pots. They appear to be sun burned. They get afternoon shade–is this too much sun for them? I found your site looking for pruning mahonias. Thanks for the info!! I love your site.

    July 4, 2010 at 5:38 pm
  6. Grumpy Gardener

    Well, I guess the leaves could be prickly if you’re one of those people that likes to give all your plants a big hug. I haven’t the faintest idea why the blooms would cause a rash. What would you have to do? Grind them into a paste and smear them all over your skin? In any case, the Grump likes mahonia because he is prickly too and no plant in his garden wishing to see another day would ever dare give him a rash.

    February 6, 2009 at 10:36 am
  7. Delfina

    Not a very pretty plant.Looks like the leaves might bite and the blooms give you a rash. scary.

    February 5, 2009 at 9:00 pm
  8. Grumpy Gardener

    Well, if it makes you feel any better, Holly, we in the Southeast totally covet your corn.
    I think you could successfully grow mahonia as a container plant, provided you start out with a small plant and prune it to control the size as you go. The time to prune it is in spring after it finishes blooming. Keep in mind that this shrub doesn’t grow dense and compact like a boxwood, but naturally develops an open, sculptural form with several main trunks featuring tiers of foliage a various levels. When you shorten a trunk, cut back to the foliage. Cut the trunks to different heights too — don’t flat-top the shrub.
    Now, about care. Leave the mahonia outside in part sun from spring through fall. It does need exposure to several weeks of cool weather (temps in the 40s) before you bring it inside. Once inside, place it near a bright window in your coolest room. The soil should be somewhat moist and well-drained.
    You can handle an indoor azalea in much the same way. If you have one now (many are grown in greenhouses and forced into early bloom), place it near a bright window. Keep the temps as cool as you can stand. This helps the blooms last longer and lessens problems with spider mites. Make sure the soil is well-drained, but moist at all times. When the last flowers fade, do any necessary pruning.
    After your last frost in spring, place the plant outside in light shade. Again, keep the soil moist and feed monthly until September with water-soluble azalea food. Don’t be too quick to bring it indoors. It needs several weeks of exposure to temps in the 40s to bloom properly. But don’t expose it to freezing temps. Take it indoors before it gets really cold.

    February 5, 2009 at 12:02 pm
  9. Holly25

    From a jealous Nebraskan – we spend mid-winter hoping it won’t be too icy to take a walk – could mahonia be trimmed frequently so it didn’t get huge if grown in a pot and be taken in for the winter? Or just grown indoors? Same question if there are miniature azaleas – I think I’ve seen one or two in a catalogue.

    February 4, 2009 at 3:25 pm
  10. Grumpy Gardener

    Don’t give up on your mahonias. Every newly installed plant goes through an adjustment period and it’s typical for the plants to look a little rough in the middle of winter. They should look a lot better after the new spring foliage emerges.

    January 12, 2009 at 6:58 am
  11. Priscilla

    I just had a beautiful new landscape installed this fall and my garden designer planted three mahonias under an oak tree. Now, three months later, they don’t look all that great, certainly not like the one in the picture above. They’ve lost leaves off the top and look kind of scraggly. Should I just write it off to them being in a new home and hope they’ll get better in the spring??

    January 11, 2009 at 8:59 pm
  12. Grumpy Gardener

    Gee, Helen, I guess mahonias rock your world. Sorry about the Aldridge Gardens link — I messed it up, but my son fixed it. That’s what kids are for.
    So, Cameron, you killed a mahonia, but not a daphne? You must live in the Bizarro World. I can kill a daphne just by looking at it. I have that effect on people too.

    January 11, 2009 at 8:27 pm
  13. Jeff

    I have one of these. It was given to me years ago and I never new the name. Thanks for the post.

    January 11, 2009 at 9:34 am
  14. Cameron (Defining Your Home Garden)

    Would you believe that I can grow Winter Daphne, but I killed a Mahonia?
    Sad, but true.
    Cameron

    January 11, 2009 at 9:26 am
  15. Helen @ Gardening With Confidence

    Mahonias rock my world. The winter garden at the JC Raulston Arboretum has several – big, lush, gotta have one – ones that are great year round, but are to die for in the winter.
    As a reminder, the JC Raulston Arboretum has their free winter lecture and tour February 15, 2009 at 1:00.
    I couldn’t open the link to Aldridge Botanical Gardens; I wanted to check out what you’ve been up to!

    January 10, 2009 at 11:10 am
  16. Helen @ Gardening With Confidence

    Mahonias rock my world. The winter garden at the JC Raulston Arboretum has several – big, lush, gotta have one – ones that are great year round, but are to die for in the winter.
    As a reminder, the JC Raulston Arboretum has their free winter lecture and tour February 15, 2009 at 1:00.
    I couldn’t open the link to Aldridge Botanical Gardens; I wanted to check out what you’ve been up to!

    January 10, 2009 at 11:10 am
  17. Helen @ Gardening With Confidence

    Mahonias rock my world. The winter garden at the JC Raulston Arboretum has several – big, lush, gotta have one – ones that are great year round, but are to die for in the winter.
    As a reminder, the JC Raulston Arboretum has their free winter lecture and tour February 15, 2009 at 1:00.
    I couldn’t open the link to Aldridge Botanical Gardens; I wanted to check out what you’ve been up to!

    January 10, 2009 at 11:10 am
  18. Helen @ Gardening With Confidence

    Mahonias rock my world. The winter garden at the JC Raulston Arboretum has several – big, lush, gotta have one – ones that are great year round, but are to die for in the winter.
    As a reminder, the JC Raulston Arboretum has their free winter lecture and tour February 15, 2009 at 1:00.
    I couldn’t open the link to Aldridge Botanical Gardens; I wanted to check out what you’ve been up to!

    January 10, 2009 at 11:09 am

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