Summer may seem an odd time to mention mahonias: after all we don’t pay them much attention until autumn when the Asian species bloom or spring when the American species are in full bloom. Top of the list for popularity must be the November-blooming ‘Charity’ and associated hybrids, bringing colour and subtle perfume to the dreariest month of the year. But many, many years ago I saw a beautiful mahonia with small, red flowers at Saville Gardens, west of London and was intrigued. This unusual species was discovered in about 1880 but was not introduced into cultivation until a century later by the great Roy Lancaster. Although slightly tender and growing best in a sheltered spot with some shade, it is a lovely plant with lots to satisfy the curious gardener who does not demand ‘wham, bam, thank you mam’ colour from all their plants.
It has an open, graceful habit and very large leaves composed of seven leaflets that are edged and tipped with spines. As they emerge they are soft and tinted with burgundy and interspersed are the elegant flower stems that will soon produce the interesting bicoloured flowers. These are rather small and cherry red with a straw yellow interior. They are hardy showy but they are pretty enough and open from July onwards. The leaves are the main reason to grow it, apart from the novelty of having a red-flowered mahonia, and if you turn over a mature leaf, taking care to avoid the spines, you discover the beautiful white covering to the undersides. Unfortunately the leaves are stiff and they don’t flutter in the breeze to reveal their beauty – you have to make the effort unless you are of particularly tiny proportions!
Interestingly this species has hybridised, in several place, including the Savill Gardens, to produce M. x savilliana. The other parent is M. eurybracteata which is now notable for the widespread availability of the cultivar ‘Soft Caress’ – a spineless mahonia. Both species are native to Mt Omei in Sichuan, China and both were introduced by Roy Lancaster. The hybrid has been observed in the wild but four of the seedlings at Savill were thought distinct enough to be named and are ‘Commissioner’, ‘Factor’, ‘Ranger’ and ‘Verderer’.
But back to M. gracilipes which I saw growing happily at Mount Congreve. It cannot be included in any top ten list of shrubs but it is a charming evergreen for a sheltered shady spot where temperatures do not drop too low and where it is not deprived or water for too long. It is growing almost happily back in my garden in the east Midlands.