All too often, Mahonias are found lurking in the back of a border: neglected, straggly and unloved. They seem to have little to recommend them, except the ability to survive huge amounts of neglect.
However, just like Cinderella, Mahonia can be a real beauty. Some varieties have lovely autumn leaf colours. In the depths of winter their sprays of golden flowers are a heart-lifting sight. Mahonia doesn’t even need a fairy godmother to transform it – just an occasional prune, mulch and feed.
How to prune Mahonia
The key to getting your Mahonia looking good is proper pruning. The mistake many people make is to leave their Mahonia to its own devices. Over time it will become leggy, with sparser leaves and fewer flowers – this is particularly the case for the Asiatic types, such as Mahonia japonica. Even worse is to try and ‘shear’ a Mahonia like a hedge – you’ll just end up with an ugly blob!
The solution is to cut your Mahonia back in Spring, after it’s finished flowering. Use a pair of sharp, clean secateurs to clip off the faded flowerheads to a pair of leaves below the flower. It’s a prickly job, so wear long sleeves! On mature shrubs, take out one or two of the oldest stems, cutting them back to the ground level. Then cut about one quarter of the older stems by a third or a half. This will encourage new growth and the results the following year really are quite spectacular, especially on a neglected plant. It’s quite difficult to see the ‘nodes’ on the stems – ie the places where new growth will sprout from. Don’t worry – just make a clean, sharp cut at an angle and the plant will do the rest.
After pruning, feed your Mahonia with a multipurpose fertilizer and mulch with compost or well-rotted manure.
Where to plant your Mahonia
Mahonia’s glory is its fountain of bright yellow flowers in winter. Depending on which species you choose, it will flower anywhere between late autumn or early spring. So plant your Mahonia where you can see it from a window, so you can enjoy its flowers without having to go outside in the cold and rain. Although many Mahonias have a lovely scent this is often wasted as their size and prickliness means they’re not suitable for placing by doors or paths.
Mahonias are originally woodland plants, so although they will do fine in a sunny position, they prefer a bit of shade, and will even grow in full shade (although they may bend towards the light). As with many woodland plants, they prefer a neutral to slightly acid soil, but seem to do well enough on chalk.
How to choose a Mahonia:
There are about 70 different species of Mahonia, but only a few are widely available in the UK.
Mahonias can be very broadly divided into two groups: those originating in North America and those from Asia. The North American Mahonias tend to be smaller, wider and have a tendency to sucker and spread. They are also known for their beautiful leaf colours. The Asian Mahonias are taller and more elegant, but can grow very large.
Some recommended North American Mahonias are Mahonia aquifolium ‘Apollo’ and Mahonia x wagneri ‘Pinnacle’. Recommended Asian Mahonias include Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’, Mahonia x media ‘Buckland’ and Mahonia x media ‘Lionel Fortescue’.
If you want something smaller, than Mahonia nitens ‘Caberet’ could be a good choice. It’s more compact, only growing to around 1.2 metres high and less than a metre in spread. In addition, it has bright orange-red buds which change to yellow during late autumn to winter.
Finally, you might want to try Mahonia eurybracteata ‘Soft Caress’. This is a splendid plant: a new introduction which doesn’t have prickles! It’s another Asian species, but much smaller and with a rounded shape. Although the flowers, which appear in autumn, are similar to the other Mahonias, the leaves are completely different, being feathery and spine-free.
I think it’s time to take another look at the Mahonia. Just like Cinderella, it’s really a bit of a princess!