Common name: Mahonia

The name Mahonia was given to American species in honour of a nurseryman called Bernard McMahon of Irish birth, who emigrated before 1800. He set up a shop and seed agents, supplying farmers and gardeners all over North America.

In some circles, he was known as the father of American gardening but others, notably British botanist were not so enthusiastic about him. Discussing matters to do with plants, McMahon was a frequent correspondent with Thomas Jefferson, president of America in those early years of the 19th century. Frequently, he offered seeds and other plants to be grown at the presidential estate, Monticello in Pennsylvania.

Botanical and family name

The botanical name Mahonia was given to species of the barberry which were found growing in the western and northern American states during the Voyage of Discovery, a trek across those states in the early 19th century, paid for by the American government.

The name Mahonia was given in honour of the great efforts made by McMahon to promote the value of the very large flora of America, including timber trees such as spruce and Douglas fir and ornamental garden plants, such as Clarkia and Lewisia, joint leaders of the exhibition. Most of the American species are smaller, low-growing bushes, such as Mahonia aquifolium from Oregon, popularly called the Oregon grape. The species name aquifolium means like holly and the leaves have small spines at the corners.

The name Mahonia was then extended to describe related plants from the Orient. The winter group consists of selections and hybrids of Mahonia japonica, a species from the Far East, capable of making bushes of two metres or more, both tall and wide.

These have large, divided leaves; the leaflets are like holly — dark-green and spiny. The stems are slender and arise from ground level. Another Mahonia, of Chinese origin, Mahonia lomarifolia, much larger, a small tree in fact, is grown in gardens. This has been crossed with the Japanese species to give the most widely grown hybrid, Mahonia x media, bridging both American and Asian species. The x designates a hybrid cross species. It works its magic during the growing season. Even relatively small amounts can be effective.

Garden value

The flowers are carried conspicuously at the top of the plant in a tuft of slender spiky sprays, each floret resembling a tiny daffodil, and, remarkably, the flowers are scented of daffodils too. There is, of course, no connection with daffodils, the mahonia is a member of the berberis family. But it is reasonable to assume that two plants evolved to produce a similar scent if it was effective in attracting pollinating insects during the chilly months of the year. If the taller mahonias get too tall, as the plants often do after about 10 years, they can be cut back hard and will sprout again from the base to make a more bushy growth.

The spring flowering kinds are North American in origin, known as ‘Oregon grape’ in their native land. They come from dry, open scrubland and tolerate shade reasonably well but flower much better in the open. Unlike the Asian branch of the family, the flowers are not scented, nor are they as elegant, consisting more of bunches of small bright-yellow flowers. They are very decorative during April, but the plants are smaller and more easily accommodated in smaller gardens.

Growing Mahonia

Both kinds of mahonias, being members of the berberis family, like well-drained soil. Heavy ground leads to roots lacking air in times of winter wet and these shrubs react by leaves turning yellow and red and falling off. Mahonias are quite tolerant of drought and will grow on dry banks, though not as well as in good fertile ground.

Tolerant of a fair amount of shade, they are good for background planting but they should still be visible enough to get the benefit of their lovely scented flowers at this time of year. Although tough and wind-resistant, constant wind exposure tends to spoil the appearance of the glossy evergreen foliage.

Kitchen garden


Garden compost for vegetable growing

Garden compost is invaluable for vegetable growing. It supplies organic material that provides humus to improve soil structure and nutrients for a wide range of vegetables and fruits. Organic material such as fallen leaves and grass mowings should be stacked during the summer months and in autumn.

This material should be turned in the heap during the winter months to assist it in breaking down, ready for use in the springtime when it can be spread over the vegetable garden. This will allow it to be worked back into the soil, where it works its magic during the growing season. Even relatively small amounts can be effective.


Trees, shrubs and roses

It is a good time to plant hedges because the planting season for deciduous bare-root trees has begun. Do not plant until spring in windy areas where the young plants might be wind-rocked. Small trees can be planted as whips for shelter belts and and small blocks.


Lawn mosskillers can still be applied especially in shady areas — Sulphate of Iron will blacken the grass for a time. Mowing will have finished for the year in most cases, but if there is a dry spell, and the ground is not soggy, the opportunity should be taken to mow.

Fruit and vegetables

The vegetable area can be dug over if the ground is not too wet, or at least have weeds controlled so that they do not go on growing all winter and shedding seeds. Tidy away all old crops that might carry over pests or diseases to the spring. Plant fruit trees.


There is still plenty of time to plant a few spring bedding plants and even some bulbs. Many garden shops now have bulbs reduced to clear and good bargains can be got. Some of the overgrown perennial flowers could be lifted, divided and re-planted.

Greenhouse and house plants

Make sure that house plants are away from sources of heat and not close to single-glazed windows at night. They should not be standing in water either and should be getting reasonably good light. Watering in the greenhouse should be at a


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