Oregon Grape Holly

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Oregon Grape Mahonia, has always been one of my favorite garden shrubs.  When I was a child visiting Maymont Park in Richmond, Virginia, I loved the Grape Mahonia planted on either side of the grand marble staircase leading from the upper gardens down to the Japanese Garden.  I couldn’t name it then, but loved the huge bushes full of tiny yellow flowers and deep purple berries.  The huge spiky leaves looked lush and friendly, softer somehow than normal holly bushes.  I wanted to grab some of the berries to play with, but of course was never allowed to touch them.

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This seedling, three years in the garden is beginning to form a clump. It will bloom this winter.

This seedling, three years in the garden, is beginning to form a clump. It will bloom this winter.

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That memory of the Mahonia stayed with me, and I was delighted to find a few old Mahonia shrubs on the border of our new garden here in Williamsburg.  Often called, “Oregon Grape Holly,” Mahonia is native to the western coast of North America, from Alaska south to California.  Evergreen and hardy to Zone 5, it is the state flower of Oregon.

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Mahonia in January. The leaves sometimes change color in response to cold weather, but the yellow flowers still welcome pollinators.

Mahonia in January. The leaves sometimes change color in response to cold weather, but its yellow flowers still welcome pollinators.

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Native cultures along our west coast used every part of the Mahonia shrub.  Its seeds are edible, although very tart.  They can be converted to juice, jelly, or eaten out of hand.  They also make a beautiful purple dye.  The inner bark can be rendered to a yellow dye.  Parts of the plant are medicinal.

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Potted Mahonia blooming on the patio.

Potted Mahonia blooming on the patio.

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The Mahonia in my garden are already beginning to grow new leaves, and bunches of bright yellow flowers will emerge in late January and February.  They are an important nectar source for bees and other nectar loving insects who come out on warm winter days in search of food.  Mahonia blooms brightly when most of the landscape is dormant.

In their native northwest, Mahonia grow as an understory shrub beneath Douglas fir and pines.

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Mahonias by my parents' back porch

A clump of Mahonias grows and re-seeds beside my parents’ back porch.

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They prefer partial shade and rich, acidic soil.  Drought tolerant, they thrive in a range of growing conditions from full sun to deep shade.  This is a tough shrub, forming wide clumps, but staying neatly 5’-7’ high at maturity.

Birds love Mahonia berries and spread seeds far and wide.  Mahonia grows so easily from seeds it is considered invasive in some areas of the Southeastern United States.  Where you have a small group of Mahonia growing in moist, receptive soil, you’re likely to find a nursery of seedlings sprouting around them.

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Mahonia

Mahonia shrugs off snow and freezing weather.

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My parents have an established clump of Mahonia near their back porch.  They allowed us to dig seedlings a few years back, and all we planted survived.  I gave about half of that bunch to friends and planted the rest in various parts of the garden.  Some have grown more than others, depending on the soil and light.  As you might guess, the seedling I planted in a large pot on the patio has grown the most and gives the best bloom each winter.

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This transplanted Mahonia will bloom for the first time this winter.

This transplanted Mahonia will bloom for the first time this winter.

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We’ve learned that the deer ignore Mahonia.  So not only do the Mahonia have lovely sharp thorns on each leaf, they certainly won’t draw deer to the garden for dinner.  This is another excellent prickly shrub to use along fences and boundaries.  It is dense, once established, and makes a beautiful, if shaggy, hedge.

Mahonia is also a great shrub to use as a background behind flower beds.  Evergreen, it provides interest all year and makes a deep green backdrop behind warm season herbaceous flowers.  It sparkles in winter and makes a beautiful vignette with evergreen ferns and ground cover in the foreground.  Just when days are short and dark and rimmed with frost and snow, its tassels of bright yellow flowers will appear.

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Mahonia

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A downside of Mahonia is its prodigious crop of seedlings.  If you don’t fancy a Mahonia grove in your border you must pull them every year or so.  My mother has been mentioning this for months now, and we finally made the trip in gardening togs with a supply of empty nursery pots.

Mahonia has deep roots which grow much more quickly than the stem.  The Earth was loose and moist, and so I was able to dig the seedlings without too much damage to the root system.  I piled them, large and small, into a few large pots.  She had a few bonus American Holly seedlings mixed in and insisted we take them all.

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Fresh potting soil over their exposed roots, these seedlings are ready for the trip home.

Fresh potting soil over their exposed roots, these seedlings are ready for the trip home.

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Mahonia doesn’t always transplant well because of its deep roots.  Choose a day when the Earth is moist and the sky overcast if you plan to move some for yourself.  I used a hand trowel because they were growing so close under the established shrubs.  A narrow bladed spade would have allowed me to dig deeper for some of the larger plants.

After digging for nearly an hour, I decided enough was enough, and begged some fresh potting soil to cover the shrubs’ roots for the drive home.  My family wryly observed that I’m happiest with my hands in the dirt and smudges of soil on my face.  We helped with a little raking, sweeping, and Caladium digging while we were at it.  My parents brought most of their annuals in weeks ago, but we rescued a little “left behind” cane Begonia and called it a day.

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Seedling shrubs we dug from my parents' garden yesterday. I potted these up this morning to grow on a while before they go in the garden or to friends.

Seedling shrubs we dug from my parents’ garden . I potted these up to grow on a while before they go in the garden or to friends.

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Yesterday I sorted out the seedlings.  We planted a handful of the larger ones and some with very long roots directly into the garden.  Most went into 4” pots to allow their roots to recover under optimal conditions before they are planted out.  The tiniest seedlings went into some deep 1 ½ ” fern pots.  They will grow on for several months before we plant them.

We ended up with about 50 Mahonias, six hollies, and several bits of evergreen ground cover.   My gardening friends are all invited to come over and adopt a few Mahonia if they have spots in their gardens left to brighten with a sturdy shrub.

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We planted the larger seedling shrubs directly into the garden yesterday.

We planted the larger seedling shrubs directly into the garden yesterday.

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Neptune’s Harvest helps transplants recover from the shock.  In addition to the traditional N-P-K nutrients, it’s full of minerals and helps plants get a good start.  All of the Mahonia and hollies got a good watering with Neptune’s Harvest yesterday, and they’re getting watered in again today with the rain.

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Mahonia blooming at Colonial Williamsburg.

Mahonia blooming at Colonial Williamsburg.

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Our newest Oregon grape hollies will continue to grow through winter in our climate.  We won’t expect flowers for at least a year or two, but these long lived shrubs have plenty of seasons ahead to brighten winter days and offer up little purple berries to curious birds and children.

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Mahonia blossoms begin to open their bright yellow flowers.

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All Photos by Woodland Gnome

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New growth on an Oregon Grape Holly in our front garden.  Notice the scarlet leaves?   Linda explains why these leaves may turn scarlet to survive a particularly cold winter.

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