I seem to have been in a rut of dull evergreens lately, championing overlooked plants. It is a dangerous path to tread. I know from working on magazines that readers want ‘new’. What is the point of mentioning something that has been around for ages. But, just as I wish news reports would revisit stories that once hit the headlines, so I knew how it all turned out, I think there is merit in renewing an interest in something we all take for granted.
If it were not for the excitement of November-flowering Mahonia x media , almost universally planted as the cultivar ‘Charity’ and recent introductions such as ‘Smooth Caress’ and the orange-flowered ‘Cabaret’ (which I got unduly excited about at first but now find curiously dull – not that that will stop me planting one again simply because the flowers are orange instead of yellow) we would all be very happy with good old M. aquifolium.
Often known as the Oregon grape, which, for a common name tells us quite a lot, this has been a garden stalwart for many years, initially as a berberis – the plants with compound leaves rather than simple leaves being hived off into the genus mahonia.
It has a lot of merits. It is hardy and evergreen, the leaves are shiny so not dull, the flowers are bright and slightly fragrant and the berries are showy, black with a bluish bloom, and edible (if you need to eat them) and good for wildlife. It branches freely and will sucker and layer if left to straggle, but a bit of judicious tidying up of old stems can keep it neat enough for anyone.
The flowers open in spring, at the same time as new shoots are emerging, and the blooms are held in crowded clusters at the tips of the shoots (so don’t prune in winter). The new foliage is often flushed with orange and there are some good cultivars with fresh leaves that can rival a pieris. It is not fussy about soil either and will grow in acid and alkaline soils and, once established, will cope with dry shade but it needs a good start in life in these conditions. If the soil is very dry it can get powdery mildew which looks unpleasant but is not life-threatening. It is also a good coastal plant, evidenced by seeing it growing right on the shoreline in Oregon (I said the common name was a sensible one).
Useful plants like this often get overshadowed by flashier competitors which is a shame because it has so many merits. I suppose the flowers, which are at their best in April, then have to compete with a cavalcade of other blooms.
Just to show how things don’t quite go to plan, last week I bought a mahonia. But it was M. x media ‘Winter Sun’, more of which later.