Plant of the Moment: Mahonia x Media ‘Charity’


I know it isn’t considered very fashionable but I rather like Mahonias particularly at this time of year when they come into their own.

Mahonias come from north and central America and East Asia, particularly the rocky and woodland areas.  They were named after Bernard M’Mahon, an Irish political refugee, who opened a seed shop in Philidelphia and published the American Gardeners Calendar in 1806.

Mahonia xMedia ‘Charity’ was bought from Ashwood Nurseries probably five years ago.  It is planted in part shade under the branches of my neighbours trees so it has taken a while to really establish and get its roots down through the tree roots.  I like the dark green leathery foliage which I hope will provide a good back drop to the spring and summer plants in front of it.

However, now is its real season of interest with beautiful fragrant acid yellow flowers. The flowers are frost-resistant and an excellent food provider for pollinators which might  still be roaming around in the winter.  It is also nice to have something in flower at this time of year.

Mahonia x media ‘Charity’ is a large variety and can grow up to 400cm(13ft) tall.  I have been hoping that mine would produce branches and therefore a wider plant but so far there is only one tall stem.  I wouldn’t call it leggy yet but I am wondering whether I should prune it after flowering but I don’t know if I have the courage just to cut the top off! The RHS website says that whilst Mahonia can be stooled to about 45cm (18in) it is best to prune them over three years, removing a third each year.  It also appears as though I should have pinched out the dead flowers when the plant was little as this would have encourage more shoots  and a better shaped plant – well you live and learn.

Another interesting thing about Mahonias is that in the roots of species plants is a substance called berberin  which has antibacterial  effects and is used as a bitter tonic.  Apparently there is also evidence that Mahonia may have anti-tumour properties.  The flowers are followed by blue/black fruits which have the common name of Oregon grape.  My research tells me that they are very nice to eat raw or cooked so I might try one this year.


I love the shape of the flower head it is like some sort of mad octopus – how can you not like it.


25 Comments Add yours

  1. Cathy says:

    I felt a bit uncomfortable reading this as I recognise some of my own feelings about mahonia in it! But you are right, it’s too easy to dismiss it as boring and not give it much of a second glance, which is such a shame particularly at this time of year when it it is doing its best to attract our attention with its flowers – the insects that are around know a good thing when they see one, I expect. I shall go and look at mine tomorrow and give it a bit more reverence, which with the stature of a small tree it probably deserves anyway. I love your last picture of the mad octopus!

  2. That looks like a great plant. I love the flowers and the flower head – I’ve never seen anything like that flowering octopus.

  3. Holleygarden says:

    I have always loved mahonias, even though I don’t have one in my own garden. (I think I just am not at the garden center when they are available.) A plant that gives so much interest through the year – what’s not to love?

  4. I don’t know why I don’t have one as they are native here…love the pictures

  5. Sandra Jonas says:

    Mahonias are underrated. They are certainly welcome this time of year. I like your description, they do appear rather octopus like.

  6. Yvonne Ryan says:

    I thought it looked like a triffid?

  7. Rose says:

    I’ve got a mahonia in my garden and love it as the bees do. Also for its lovely powerfull scent and beautiful leaves in the winter. Here in denmark, it isn’t very highly reconized either but its a shame.

  8. Christina says:

    Fashionable or not, I really like Mahonia; I’m trying to get one growing here, but it doesn’t really tolerate the heat, I’m hoping that when it becomes more established it will cope better. I like most things that will flower in winter and of course it is a bonus if they are perfumed too. Christina

  9. hillwards says:

    I really like Mahonia too. I love the architecture of their foliage, and the zippy flowers at this time of year. I have been wondering whether I could squeeze one in here (but it would have to be a more compact one)…

  10. djdfr says:

    Oh, no, does one have to worry about fashion in the garden? ! :-))
    I’m not keen on yellow flowers but I do appreciate mahonia with its perfume in winter. I did not know the fruits are edible.

  11. Anna B says:

    Ah ha! The amazing Mahonia! I love these crazy plants! They’re absolutely out of this world aren’t they! I love your post! If they’re not fashionable then perhaps this makes them even cooler? I certainly think they’re cool : )

  12. I just got two of them sent by Southern Living as a trial. They are a beautiful plant, but it is touch and go whether they will take our winters.

  13. Roger Brook says:

    You mention fragrant and Christina comments on the perfume. But wow, don’t understate the scent, its fantastic and pervades a small garden. Unfortunately mine is too far from the house but as the sun is shining I am going out to admire it now. Your post has rekindled my interest in this underrated plant.

  14. Charlie says:

    Mahonia x Media ‘Charity’ is on my list to plant this spring. The hummingbirds like to nest in them and I have a pair in by yard.

  15. Architectural evergreen foliage, beautiful flowers in the dead of winter – I love mahonias, however unfashionable they are, the only downside is the spiky leaves, making it hard to garden round if you put it in an awkward place. I have planted one by the newly denuded fence in the back garden, and have another that I am thinking about moving into the front garden. I’ve found them to be really tough plants too, and although you may not get any flowers, I would chop it back once the flowers are over and expect to see it sprouting new sideshoots from lower down very quickly.

  16. Paul Latham says:

    Hello, I have a super mahonia but it has outgrown its space do you know when I can move it to a larger location, my I live in North Wales and my garden is 860 feet above sea level so we tend to be cold and windy.
    Many Thanks
    Paul Latham

  17. Alexis1 says:

    I too have had a single stemmed Mahonia since February 2014. It is about four foot tall now and growing ever higher. The lower half of the stem has lost all its leaves so it now looks like a small tree. I don’t dare prune it back to encourage side shoots. Did your Mahonia ever produce any side shoots?

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      It did after I chopped it back, but it sat still for about a year which was worrying, now back to similar height before I lopped it

    2. Alexis1 says:

      Thanks. I am a bit scared to do it yet as I haven’t got many surrounding plants to hide it. I think I will wait until nearby plants have grown a bit.

  18. Jane Pennington says:

    When I bought my cottage 5 years ago, there were already 2 branching mahonias. They’re brilliant for winter colour and feed the early bees. I bought 2 more and have the ‘one stem’ problem. I will chop it back when this winter’s flowers have finished and keep my fingers crossed! Thanks for the blog.

  19. Sharyn Blackwood says:

    I have a picture of a plant that might be this.. but there are no flowers. I’m really curious about what it is. I live in calgary alberta Canada and don’t recall ever seeing it’s like before.

    1. vivian gerard says:

      hi sharyn blackwood i live in abbotsford bc canada and the mahonia i have is just starting to get its spiney shoots it is a very prickley plant but yes the humming birds love it in the summer

  20. Tricia says:

    Found your site whilst looking for information on pruning my Mahonia which I love as I can see it in flower from my kitchen window. Just taken out a virburnham which had grown too large in front of it. Now I want to encourage my Mahonia to flower more from the front. Obviously the Virburnham got in the way of the Mahonia. Now also a large space in front of it, what can I underplant with?

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      You could try Hellebores, Epimediums for spring colour, hostas or ferns for foliage interest.

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