Mahonia ‘Winter Sun’

Posts will be a bit thin for a while due to family circumstances. But I managed to get into the garden for a hour or two at the weekend and get some planting done. This year was the year when I was going to have the second big push on planting daffs and although I started in September, circumstances have worked against me and I am still trying to get them in. Most are planted now but a few remain unplanted. Experience has taught me that such late planting is not the end of the world but, because the bulbs do not have long enough to make good roots before flowering they usually bloom with short stems. They will recover but they will not be their best the first year. But remember, bulbs are not seeds and you cannot save them for the next year to plant. It is better to plant them late than not at all!

It would be easy to plant lots of daffs in the ‘lemon meringue garden’ but I want to be strict about the planting scheme here and I do not want any hints of brassy yellow or orange so only lemon yellow and paler is allowed. A few weeks ago I bought a Mahonia ‘Winter Sun’ and although it was originally planned for what is going to be the winter garden, I decided that I wanted it where I would see it every day. So it is going on the north side of this garden, where it will eventually be partly shaded by the laburnum and will not shade anything else in this area. It will help enclose this garden slightly and also be seen from the house window and whenever I leave the house. Perhaps I needed to do this because it has been so grey and miserable lately and Sunday’s sun lit up the flowers to produce a soul-lifting splash or brightness.

Of course, the daffodil choice, planted below the mahonia, but to the north and therefore technically outside this garden, was ‘Ferris Wheel’ a yellow with a huge, flared cup that is tinged with orange! For once I want the orange to fade as it matures! Rules are made to be broken but I don’t want orange in this part of the garden, but technically I think I can get away with it!

‘Winter Sun’ is a slightly less common form of Mahonia x media than ‘Charity’. Mahonia x media is a cross of M. lomariifolia (the pod parent) and M. japonica (the pollen parent). Mahonia lomariifolia is rather tender, with bright yellow flowers with little scent while M. japonica has paler flowers with a sweet scent. I must admit that ‘Winter Sun’ was not exactly sending my nose into raptures but it was a bitterly cold day.

Like all these mahonias, ‘Winter Sun’ will reach 2.4m high with ease so although quite slow, it is a large shrub. In deep shade the stems will not branch much and it will make a rather palm-like shape with bare stems. I do not find this offensive but some do. Luckily mahonias respond well to hard pruning and you can confidently chop off the main stems, at any height, to lower the crown and create a bushy plant, clothed with foliage from top to bottom. This is best done in late spring so the new stems mature before winter.

On a nature-friendly note, the flowers are useful for bees and the berries eaten by birds.

Both ‘Winter Sun’ and ‘Charity’ are Irish in origin. A batch of 1000 seedlings was grown by Slieve Donard Nursery, Newcastle, Co. Down, from seeds from M. lomariifolia. Growing in 7cm pots, some were bought by Messrs Russel of Windlesham, Surrey and Sir Eric Savill at Windsor Great Park, bought three of these.  One was named by him ‘Charity’. Interestingly, at Windsor Great Park ‘Charity’ produced many seedlings and two were named – ‘Faith’ and ‘Hope’. Both are garden-worthy, though not common, ‘Faith’ with paler flowers and leaves more like M. lomariifolia – more leaflets per leaf. So ‘Faith’ and ‘Hope’ are children of “Charity’ not sisters! Both these and the next generation sometimes have branched stems of flowers.

‘Winter Sun’ was a seedling retained and named by Slieve Donard Nursery. It has more erect flower stems than ‘Charity’. It is interesting that buying these seedlings was a gamble. They were small and presumably had not flowered when they were bought by Sir Eric Savill. It is presumed that the father of all these was M. japonica but it does not seem to have been a deliberate cross.

Completing the story, the cross was made again, deliberately, by Lionel Fortescue at Buckland Monachorum in Devon. Two hundred seedlings were raised and five retained. Only one was named and is a wonderful plant with branched flower stems producing a cluster 65cm across. It was named ‘Buckland’. Lionel Fortescue in turn gave some of the seedlings to Savill Gardens and the best of these, with flower stems up to 40cm long, was named ‘Lionel Fortescue’.

I think I have some plant hunting to do and some more places to find for mahonias!

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3 Comments on “Mahonia ‘Winter Sun’”

  1. tonytomeo
    December 15, 2019 at 8:24 pm #

    Technically, ‘Meyer’ lemon, which makes an excellently rich lemon pie, is a hybrid of a lemon and an orange (not that it justifies breaking a rule).

  2. annamadeit
    January 20, 2022 at 5:19 am #

    Thank you so much for explaining the family tree of Charity, Hope and the elusive Faith. I grow the first two, and had wondered if by chance there is also one named Faith. I still have never seen one, but you were the first I know to have mentioned one. Now I really want to know what it looks like!

    • thebikinggardener
      January 20, 2022 at 4:48 pm #

      Thank you. I must admit that I think that all these mahonias are very confused in the trade. I was looking at a batch of several in a garden centre the other day and really could not see constant differences between them. Of course they may look more distinct when mature. But I have never seen ‘Faith’ either.

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