Winter blooms a bright spot on a dreary day

Mahonia bealei Photo by Karen Lawrence

Dr. Bob Gilbert – Columnist

As I write this in late February it is cold and raining.  This is the time of year that I yearn to discover something showing some sign of life, best yet a bloom, some color somewhere, anywhere.  I happened to look out my kitchen window and noticed the Japanese Pieris bushes were covered with beautiful white chains of blooms. There is hope.   If the sun ever comes back out for any length of time, they will be visited by winter pollinating insects. Yep, there are a few. A trip into town produced another surprise and further hope – striking clusters of intense yellow blooms on stems with dark green beautiful evergreen foliage.  This small shrub is Mahonia bealei also called Beale’s Barberry or Leatherleaf Mahonia. It is native to the mainland of China.  There is a very similar species from Taiwan Mahonia japonica that causes identification confusion.   M. bealei was first collected in China by a Scottish botanist Robert Fortune.  He asked a gardening friend, a Mr. Beale, to grow this plant while waiting for it to be transported to England.  Eventually he gave it the bealei species name.  Fortune is best known for having stolen tea plants, Camelia sinensis, from China and introduced them to India at a time when China did not want them leaving their country. M. bealei is classified as a shrub or a small tree growing up to10 feet. The dark green compound leaves resemble holly leaves.  Its slow growth produces stems from its roots creating a slowly expanding thicket.

The clusters of fragrant upright yellow blooms classified as racemes begin opening in late January into February.  In July and August blue fruits are produced that resemble grape clusters.  These are favored by birds which presents one of the problems with this plant.  Its seeds easily germinate hence it is considered invasive.  In fact, it is prohibited in Alabama, Georgia, Michigan, South Carolina and Tennessee.  There are areas where this plant has naturalized because it self-sows.

In western North America is a native Mahonia aquifolium called Oregon Grape.  It is also evergreen, grows to 6 feet, blooms early with yellow flowers and produces dark blue fruit.  Aqui means sharp, referring to the tips of the leaves.  Like all the Mahonias it grows best in shady locations.  It can also self sow.  This is the state flower of Oregon.

Another U.S. native is Mahonia repens called Creeping Mahonia or Creeping Oregon Grape.  It is found in northern North America, British Columbia and Alberta.  This is a low growing sub-shrub only reaching 18”.  I first saw this plant on Salt Spring Island in the Southern Gulf Islands off the coast of British Columbia while visiting a native sculptor.  At the time his wife was collecting Mahonia fruit to make jelly which is high in Vitamin C.  This can be done with the fruit from all the Mahonias. Also, native people have used the same for a blue dye. Plus, wine has been made from the fruit and there are some medicinal uses of the fruit and roots.  

Mahonias have long been favored for landscape purposes.  In fact, Mahonia japonica was awarded the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit.  It is grown for its dark green foliage and texture as well as for its blooms and fruit.  Mahonias in general have become so popular I once read an article entitled “Mahonia Mania. “ 

 Fortunately, there are other Mahonias and cultivars to consider that are not so invasive. A very popular species from China, Mahonia fortunei, is described by Michael Dirr as “perhaps the most beautiful mahonia because of its ferny foliage.” It grows slowing to 5 feet, is compact, has the same yellow blooms but rarely produces fruit.   It is hardy to zone 7.   Also, many hybrids and cultivars are now available, to list a few:

– Mahonia x media ‘Charity’ blooms late November to February. 15 feet.

– Mahonia x media ‘Arthur Menzies’ a fabulous plant growing up to 12 feet.  I grew this one in Kennesaw and never found any evidence that it was invasive.  This would be my first Mahonia choice.  

– Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’ more delicate foliage, more erect flowers.

Note: x media means that this selection was produced by crossing two different species.

Mahonias are popular if for no other reason they are easy to grow.  They look wonderful in a woodland garden.  Like most plants they do best in well-drained soil.  If you are worried about invasiveness, I suggest simply removing the fruit before the birds get them which would be a quick and easy task. There will not be that many.

 I suspect that most of the newer varieties are only available from mail order nurseries.  The mailman supplied most of the plants we grew in almost 6 acres of gardens in Kennesaw with good results. They were not very big when I got them but I was in no hurry, just happy to have found them.  

When we first moved to Kennesaw in 1970 it was a very rural community.  Urban sprawl had not reached there yet.  The house had an existing goldfish pond.  Early on I ordered some water lilies from a mail order nursery.  Several weeks later my mail man called most concerned that someone had sent me frozen peas in the mail.  He was so alarmed that he took the package home and put it in his freezer.  He wanted to make sure I was at home when he delivered the box.  In a recycled Birdseye Frozen Pea carton were my water lilies.  The bulbs were frozen solid and destroyed.  I did not have the heart to tell him what had happened.  I contacted the nursery and told them the story and they did not believe me.  The USDA Plant Inspection sticker on the container was likely the first one applied to a package mailed to Kennesaw and/or it was not recognized by the mailman. The joys of rural living.

Dr. Bob Gilbert, now living in Franklin is cofounder of Smith Gilbert Gardens in Kennesaw Ga.

Karen Lawrence is a professional photographer of botanical subjects and wildlife is from Franklin, N.C.