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.