Leatherleaf Mahonia


October 26, 1991|By Amalie Adler Ascher

Botanical name: Mahonia bealei

Pronunciation: Ma-HONE-e-ya

Family: Berberidaceae (Barberry)

Origin: North America, Asia

Class: Shrub

Display period: March to August

Height: 10 to 12 feet

Environment: Sun or filtered shade

The leatherleaf mahonia has much to recommend it. To begin with, its broad evergreen leaves provide color for the landscape the year around. The plant reaches relatively massive proportions as its stout upright stems gradually multiply through the years. Although there is not horizontal branching, the spreading girth of the shrub may require pruning to keep it within the bounds of its situation.

Mahonias in general, and M. Bealei in particular, set themselves apart from other plants in the unusual formation of their foliage. The leaves, strung in pairs along thin stems that radiate around the main stalks like spokes in a wheel, are scalloped and edged with thorns. The mahonia is a close relative of the barberry, the two classes of shrubs belonging to the same family.

Adding further dimension to the leatherleaf mahonia's luster are its dense yellow sprays of fragrant flowers appearing in the spring and, in their wake, showers of beautiful fruit the color of blueberries and touched with the same sort of glow. The mahonia's berries, though, are larger and more oval in shape. Birds relish them, so their stay may be brief.

At the house where we lived for many years, I used Mahonia bealei to accent corners of the foundation planting. The plant is a slow grower, untroubled in the main by insects and disease, making it practically maintenance-free. It also reseeds occasionally, so if you have it in your yard, watch for sprouts. If you must move them, do it before they gain any size. Mahonia bealei develops a long taproot that is likely to be damaged in digging it out.

Mahonia takes its popular name from its coarse, leathery leaves. It was named for Bernard McMahon, an Irish-born nurseryman, who introduced plants in Philadelphia. M. bealei was first collected by Robert Forrtune, an English plantsman, who found it on a trip to China in the mid-1800s in a deserted garden.

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