Eric’s Pet Plant: Leatherleaf Mahonia (Mahonia japonicum var. bealei)

young leatherleaf mahonia

The young (only 3 feet tall) Leatherleaf Mahonia in full bloom at Marsh Gardens on January 27th. Eric has planted it near a red berried American holly, to make, as he puts it “a visual pun,” on the two plants’ quite similar leaflets

I was so pleased when Eric sent this – in my mind, Mahonias are associated with far more clement climates than either of mine. Eric’s place over at Yale IS a lot warmer than it is here, but with a bit of shopping around for a protected spot, it sounds as though I just might be able to plant a clump of these beautiful, fragrant winter bloomers.

Leatherleaf Mahonia (Mahonia japonicum var. bealei)

By Eric Larson

Not often do you get something blooming in January here in New England, and when you do, you want to praise it beyond its intrinsic worth perhaps. But who is to say what intrinsic worth is? Many a fellow carbon-based life form will have questioned mine own in the decades of walking around on this blue-green orb.

But Leatherleaf Mahonia is intrinsically AND anthropomorphically beautiful, for its season of bloom and far more.

In mid-winter, the pale yellow fragrant flowers emerge on spikes of about six to nine inches long and somehow manage to get pollinated even in our climate. (The plant is native to China, despite its specific name, though it has been cultivated in Japan for hundreds of years). The flowers are displayed at the ends of the branches, visible even through the fog of a late January warm spell.

Although not as showy and vibrant as its sister plant, Oregon Grape-Holly (M. aquifolium), Leatherleaf blooms much earlier in the season: January as opposed to late March and April. So if you can grow both, you will have an extended season of bloom. In addition, the Oregon Grape-Holly has lighter green, shiny leaves, while our plant has a blue-green cast, and is somewhat dull in appearance.

leatherleaf mahonia (Mahonia japonicum var. bealei) flower closeup

A closer view of the flower spikes reveals the primrose yellow color of the individual flowers. Very fragrant, these blooms will last for up to three weeks if the weather conditions are right.

Later in spring and during the summer, dark purple to blue-black fruits begin their show on. These fruits are edible and rich in vitamin C, but are not really that tasty. I have eaten a few on a dare, and they left me with the impression that anything that acrid MUST be good for you – if it doesn’t outright kill you.

Birds love the berries, though, so expect the show of fruit to be short-lived. But helping our feathered friends is a good thing…isn’t it? ( D*****d starlings! Two were building a nest in the gutter just above our bedroom window last spring, and my warm and fuzzy feelings towards those barely-evolved dinosaurs evaporated like gasoline on hot cement.)

Leatherleaf mahonias grow 6 to 10 feet tall and spread about 8 feet wide. They are evergreen, will tolerate and even thrive in shade and are not fussy about soil as long as it is on the acid side and not swampy. Most folks looking for an evergreen screen in their shady garden think Eastern or Canadian Hemlock, perhaps Rhododendron. But Mahonia is a great choice.

Gardeners plagued by deer might find it particularly valuable. Although it shows up on many a ‘deer resistant’ list, I haven’t seen a truck, even in the mining districts of Montana, that would hold a grain of salt big enough to view those lists with any degree of certainty. Some lists are strictly geographical: apparently deer in one locality haven’t developed a taste for plants that deer in another location consider haute cuisine. And in a hard winter, plants that were ignored in years past may suddenly start disappearing at a rapid rate.

Before planting Leatherleaf Mahonia, please be warned that it’s a member of the Barberry family, which includes some notorious invasives. I have seen it pop up in spots where only birds could have deposited the seed, so while it’s not on Connecticut’s invasive species list yet, that may just be a matter of time.

The genus name is after Bernard McMahon (1775-1816), who introduced the plants collected from the Lewis and Clark Expedition to an adoring American public who had gotten notices in the mail that they may already have won!

No, I jest. But although Bernard was not Ed, he was a publisher  – of the first American-produced seed list in the United States (1803). He also inspired future generations of garden writers with his Calendar, a comprehensive month –by-month instruction manual on planting and caring for plants, including soil preparation for the “Kitchen Garden, Fruit Garden, Orchard, Vineyard, Nursery, Pleasure Ground, Flower Garden, Green House, Hot House and Forcing Frames.” This went into eleven editions, published by his son, ending in 1857. (Facsimile reproductions are in print to this day, available on order from your local bookstore or of course Amazon. A great read, and still more than a little instructive. LL)




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