Gardening column: yellow flowering mahonias glow in winter | Chroniclers


October through January is the flowering season for three mahonias that do well in the Lowcountry of South Carolina and throughout the Southeastern United States. Based on my experience, I recommend the three shade loving evergreen shrubs with “daffodil colored flower spikes” as described by Elizabeth Lawrence (“A Southern Garden”, UNC Press, 1991, p . 7).

Leather-leaved mahonia (Berberis bealei, Previously Mahonia bealei) is the most famous Mahonia in the South East. Other common names are eastern holly and Beale’s barberry, the English translation of the new Latin botanical name. Gardeners who have barberry will recognize the similarities between the flower shapes of the two plants.

The architecture of the leather-leaved mahonia is striking enough to be the focal point of a landscape. Steve Bender, editor of “The New Southern Living Gardening Book” (Oxmoor House, 2015, p. 427) writes that it has a “strong pattern of vertical stems, horizontal foliage” and is a “distinguished plant against stone, brick, wood, glass. ” This recommendation led me to place my two plants in front of the brick facade of my house.

Lawrence, Charlotte’s outspoken garden columnist, had a different opinion. Despite her praise of winter flowers, she warned, “In poor soil, it is long and unattractive.” If a leather-leaved mahonia gets too much afternoon sun, like one of my plants does, it will also become tinny as it sheds its lower leaves prematurely.

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Leather-leaved Mahonia can grow to 10 feet tall, but my plants seem to grow to 5 feet before they get long. Flower spikes are 3-4 inches long with up to 50 yellow flowers per spike. They bloom from late December to mid-February.

Mahonia Soft Caress Flowers

Mahonia Soft Caress does not have sharp tips on its leaves, hence its common name. The long leaves and narrow leaflets are described as ferns or bamboos. Anthony Keinath / Supplied

Leather-leaved Mahonia is on invasive plant lists in several southeastern states, but not in South Carolina. Mockingbirds love the fleshy blue berries and spread the seed in wild areas.

Sweet caress (Mahonia eurybracteata) is a popular small mahonia from the Southern Living Plant Collection. It is well suited to living in the ground or in large pots, with an adult size of 3 feet tall by 3 ½ feet wide.

This mahonia does not have sharp tips on its leaves, like the leather-leaved mahonia, hence the common name Soft Caress. The long leaves with narrow leaflets are described as ferns or bamboos.

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Of the three mahonias mentioned in this article, Soft Caress flowers first, from October 8 (in 2013 and 2021) until November 11 (in 2018). The flower spikes resemble those of the leather-leaved mahonia.

Soft Caress is damaged by snow and prolonged cold temperatures. In January 2018, my plants froze almost to the ground but quickly grew back. A young cottontail rabbit, who apparently couldn’t find enough to eat that spring, regularly ate the new growth until I surrounded the plants with wire mesh.

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One of the more recent mahonias is Marvel, a hybrid cultivar (Mahonia × media) introduced by Southern Living. The Leather-leaved Mahonia is one of its parents. Marvel’s notable characteristics, compared to the Leather-leaved Mahonia, are vertical growth with a main stem, larger, more showy flowers, and less pungent leaves.

Mahonia Marvel Flowers

One of the newer mahonias is Marvel, a hybrid cultivar introduced by Southern Living. The Leather-leaved Mahonia is one of its parents. Compared to the leather-leaved mahonia, Marvel has larger, more showy flowers and less pungent leaves. Anthony Keinath / Supplied

According to Southern Living Plants, Marvel is 6 feet tall by 4 feet wide. My plant, which has been in place for three years, will probably reach this height but may be narrower. It grew 8 inches in 2021. The plant has a lateral stem with a cluster of flowers as tall as on the main stem.

Flower spikes on Marvel are 8-10 inches long with around 70 flowers per spike. This year, the flowers began to open on December 10. The leaves are up to 15 inches long with 10 pairs of leaflets plus a terminal leaflet.

All three mahonias need moist soil with a good dose of compost to thrive.

Leatherleaf and Soft Caress mahonias may require pruning if the stems become long. The general rule of thumb to correct leg growth on shrubs is to prune one-third of the stems each spring. The stems should be cut to a lateral growth point or, if there is none, to the ground. This gradual trimming gives the plant a somewhat natural look, instead of being heavily sheared, and preserves productive leaves on the remaining stems as the plant produces new stems.

Soft Caress and Marvel are good substitutes for Leather Leaf Mahonia in South Carolina.

Anthony keinath is professor of plant pathology at the Clemson Coastal Research & Education Center in Charleston. His expertise is in vegetable diseases. He is also an avid gardener. Contact him at


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