Growing Mahonia

Mahonia can get a bad press because we often see them in landscaping arrangements around supermarkets and roundabouts.  Seems harsh, as Mahonia are an easy to grow shrub which look good in many settings and give winter colour, with scented flowers and berries for the wildlife. On mass, their bright yellow flowers are attractive and some varieties, see below, have scented flowers.

Mahonia are mostly trouble free shrub, which makes them easy to gro green wheelbarrow shrub. They look good in a border mixed in with other evergreen shrubs, and they have the advantage of being fast growing. Mahonia is often planted on a perimeter to make a good security hedge because of their very spiky thorns.  

Mahonia are evergreen, with deep green glossy foliage which is attractive and commonly flower from late autumn/December on wards with bright yellow flowers. Mahonia are best in part sun/part shade but are shade tolerant. The winter flowers provide late winter /early spring nectar for any solitary bees emerging from hibernation. Mahonia are an attractive shrub, the evergreen foliage is glossy a little like holly leaves and on some varieties the bright yellow flowers have fragrance and last for many weeks.

 Planting a Mahonia is easy; soak the root ball in water for 20mins and dig a hole about twice the size of the plant. Place in centre so that the top of the plant in the pot is level with the soil; back fill with good peat free compost firm in and water again.

Mahonia are easy to grow, tolerant of most conditions, and fully hardy. As a tough shrub, they are ideal for planting in difficult parts of the garden.

Which Mahonia to grow?

The most commonly grown Mahonia are upright and tall, but in fact there are many varieties with of different sizes although all tend to be fast growing. The group of Mahonia known as M. x media are all upright varieties and illustrated below above center and right is 'Charity' which has lovely yellow fragrant flowers. The upright varieties are the most common, but there are also a low growing varieties,   Mahonia repens, which grows up to 30cms, illustrated in the image below right and can be used as ground cover.

The most popular varieties grown in UK gardens are:

Mahonia x media which grows up to 5m high 4 m wide and flowers from late autumn to early winter; good varieties are 'Charity',   'Winter sun' and 'Lionel Fortescue' and all are very hardy H4. These have large upright, yellow, scented flowers. 'Charity' can be grown in a north facing spot, which makes it a good shrub for a difficult growing area.

Mahonia fortunei smaller 1.2m high 1 m wide which flowers in the autumn

Mahonia aquifolium  known as the Oregon Grape, image left is a smaller compact variety, up to 1.5 metres, very hardy and is spring flowering in March and April followed by blue black berries.

Recently the RHS have awarded Garden Merit (AGM) to Mahonia  x media Underway which reaches up to 3m and has large erect spikes of fragrant yellow flowers in the winter.

Mahonia japonica is also hardy to H4, a mid-sized shrub growing up to 2m.

A recent introduction is a red flowering Mahonia called Mahonia nitens 'Cabaret' which flowers in late summer and autumn.

When growing Mahonia you do not have to prune the shrub, but a light prune, from time to time after flowering, will trim the shrub into shape and remove any dead branches.

Mahonia look good under planted with snow drops and Hellebores to provide a mixed winter border. Suitable companion shrubs would be Berberis if making a thorny hedge, or Rhododendron, Azalea and Viburnum if planting a mixed shrub border.

Problem Mahonia and How to Prune Mahonia

The most common problem is that a mature Mahonia can get leggy and become bare at the base with all the leaves and flowers in the top growth.  Mahonia can be left unpruned,  but if the shrub has become leggy and bare, prune out the leggy branches after flowering, or hard prune the whole shrub. Some gardening advice suggests pruning out one third of the branches annually to prevent the shrub becoming bare. 

It is easy to resolve the problem of leggy Mahonia as fortunately Mahonia belong to the group of evergreen shrubs which will respond well if they are hard pruned. You can cut down hard Mahonia, Choiysa and Rhododendron and whilst they will look a bit sorry when first pruned within the season they will start to sprout new growth and recover.

Mahonia with berries and Mahonia repens 'Rotundifolia'

Last updated 29.01.2021