Some plants seem to carry an unnecessary weight of cultural baggage among gardeners. If they were newly introduced exotic specimens, they’d probably sell for a fortune to excitable auction visitors thanks to their incredible beauty, resilient growth habits and overall exceptional garden worthiness. However, because of cultural associations to do with how they have traditionally been used, we seem to regard them with disdain or, worse, immediately look past them as if they weren’t there. This means we miss out on some wonderful horticultural possibilities. And one of the best is the much-maligned mahonia.
These tough, evergreen plants became a popular choice in amenity horticulture during the 70s and 80s. Capable of surviving on essentially zero maintenance for years on end and offering up a permanent green backdrop of virtually indestructible foliage, they were used on thousands of council roundabouts, supermarket carparks and new-build housing estates.
Sadly, even the incredible scented flowers, which pop up in the dead of winter just when you need them most, and berries which are a magnet for wildlife, have not been enough of a pull to shake us out of our “carpark plant” snobbery. I have often thought, if these had more aristocratic variety names and flowered in time for the Chelsea Flower Show, our associations would be altogether different.
But when you delve into all the options available, I think even the most resolute mahonia-hater could be won over by their wondrous diversity. M eurybracteata ‘Soft Caress’, for instance, is one of the more modern introductions, producing metre-high mounds of fluffy, feathery foliage that, to me, look like clumps of parlour palms or exotic osmoxylon. It would be more at home in James Cameron’s Avatar forest than being planted next to your local bus stop. Unlike other more common species, this variety flowers in late summer and early autumn and has a warm, honey-like scent that perfectly suits its butter-yellow sprays of flowers.
If you want something even more different, M gracilipes will blow you away with its striking, pinky-red autumn flowers, carried on plants whose new growth is blushed with burgundy and silvery undersides. It is perfect for small gardens, too, as its slow growth rate and elegant stature, of up to 1.5m, make it a wonderful statement plant that won’t suddenly take over your space.
Finally, I implore you, give the more traditional M x media ‘Winter Sun’ a chance. This hybrid form is even more vigorous than the conventional M japonica of which it is reminiscent, creating towering rosettes packed with sulphur-yellow spikes of flowers. And it has a lily-of-the-valley scent so strong that you’ll smell it before you see it, from November to March.
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