September 1, 2010

Mahonia: What an Oops

First of the month, time to show you a Gardening Oops.  Visit  Joene's Garden for more.

Mahonia aquifolium 'Compactum'
When I began landscaping our new lot in 2005 I knew nothing about plants or gardening.  But I'm a great researcher and student, and I had no fear.  None.  It was just a matter of reading up.

My first challenge was to fill the empty space next to our front stoop.  The yard drops away 3 feet to the right of the open front porch, and it needed something to keep the UPS guy from feeling he might fall off the side of the porch getting to the front door. There wasn't really any danger of that, but the front porch just felt oddly unbalanced on that side.
After much research and reading and internet searching, I came up with:
Mahonia aquifolium, called Oregon Grapeholly.

Gardener, don't ask.  I don't know.  Because its foliage was shiny green with mahogany winter color.  Because it kept its glossy leaves all winter.  Because it had spiky edged leaves.  Because no one else had one; it was a different choice than all the tired rhododendrons used as foundation plantings in Connecticut.

Never mind that it was unavailable in nurseries here and I had to mail order it.  Never mind that it's a native of Oregon's wet climate, not New England's winters.  It was beautiful, it was (minimally) hardy for me, it was unusual here, and I wanted it.
photo from MoBot's files
One caution in the shrub literature: "protect from winter dessication".  But that was okay, the site faces east, protected from the west by the brick wall of the stoop.  And the north-south winter winds that race up the swale where our house sits between two ridges wouldn't affect them, I was absolutely sure, and who wants to wrap evergreen shrubs in protection every winter anyway.  It defeats the whole purpose.  So in the fall of 2005 I put in 3 tiny mail order Oregon Grapehollies (from Forestfarm in Oregon! how authentic!), and waited for spring to see my new glossy-leaved hedge fill in.

In spring 2006 this is what I had:

A close up:

They all came out. 

That same spring I planted 4 little redtwig dogwoods (Cornus sericea 'Isanti'):

Here are the redtwigs two years later:

And when the redtwig's leaves are down, the scarlet branches shine from the front door:

My first plant love affair quickly became my first gardening oops when I planted mahonia.  Like adolescence, a first garden is a learning experience, complete with spurned loves, disappointments, starting over, and hard won wisdom.  And I thought I was old enough to be over that.

Mahonia aquifolium:
Debbie at Garden of Possibilities is in Connecticut and she says good things about mahonia complete with lovely photos.  But it's important to note that she gardens in the southern part of our state, closer to warming ocean waters and one zone higher.  Actually it was the drying winter winds that did mine in.  Wrong plant, wrong place.  Oops.


  1. Laurrie,

    Thanks for the shout out. I love the analogy between a first garden and a first love. I think we all have our 'Mahonia moments' but that's the only way we really learn the right plant/right place lesson.

  2. I tried Mahonia with the same results as you Laurrie. I love the shrub but it does not love the growing conditions in my woods-surrounded south/central CT garden.
    Thanks for adding your GOOPs again this month.

  3. Ooops, I do love mahonia as well, especially those great big ones you see all over England. Guess I won't try it.

  4. Debbie, these "mahonia moments" are painful and sometimes expensive, but I'm learning!

    Joene, I'm glad to know others here have had trouble with this plant, not just me.

    Deborah, I don't think mahonia would be happy in your part of Canada, but they sure are lovely plants elsewhere.

  5. That Mahonia is a great looking plant. I have tried it too. It doesn't like it here either.

  6. Lisa, I guess a lot of people have had poor results trying to grow this!

  7. Hello! Just want to say I have enjoyed reading your blog very much. I just had to comment on this picture - I am from the eastern side of Washington State where we have hot summers and cold winters, and Oregon grape is everywhere. The leaf die out that you see in the pictures is normal, particularly for dry windy winters and more extreme climates within its range. The fact that there are red and green leaves though probably meant that the plants made it through. The dead leaves get dropped by summer and new growth comes on. I think the redtwigs look great in that location though. You would have waited a long time for the Oregon grapes to reach that height and you would have the browning every year.

  8. Orin, thanks. It's interesting to hear what these plants are supposed to look like!


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