Thursday, 3 February 2011

Mahonia

You have to admire the resilience of those plants that have toughed it out, fully leaved, through the worst of the winter. Most other sensible plants drop their leaves in October; they go deeply dormant and do not dare sprout again until spring has well and truly sprung. Evergreens however take all the bad weather that is thrown at them and help furnish gardens that would otherwise seem very bare and windswept scenes.

The Mahonias doubly deserve our gratitude for not only boldly holding onto their leaves throughout the year, but for brightening the darkest and dreariest months with their beautiful sweetly scented flowers. 

The most commonly found example of this group of shrubby evergreens is Mahonia x media ‘Charity’. Growing to about two metres in height and as much across, it makes for a fine architectural specimen. Each long upright branch is topped off with a whorl of very long leaves made up of up to twenty or so shiny holly-like leaflets. Their slightly prickly nature and the tough, impenetrable quality of the bush make this an excellent screening shrub and a plant to keep out unwelcome visitors. The fact that it will grow and perform well in unpromisingly shady situations only adds to its potential for almost every garden.

Easily overlooked through the summer when there is so much else to draw the eye, the Mahonias are at their best in deepest winter. That is when, with little else around to compete, they produce their spectacular tassels of sweetly scented flowers. Exploding like catherine wheels or golden fountains atop the long stems, each string of small, primrose yellow flowers can be over a foot long. Their lovely perfume is like that of Lily of the Valley and if some of those long lasting flowers are brought inside, they will subtly scent whole rooms.
These exceedingly tough and dramatic good-doers survive and thrive in virtually any situation short of a waterlogged site. Left alone they dependably fill their allotted space, controlling and dominating competition through shading, saving much time and trouble weeding. If and when some pruning is needed to prevent potential legginess, then this forgiving shrub will respond well to the treatment, best done in Spring. That is when you will discover their other, usually unseen and totally unexpected extraordinary feature. The wood is the most startlingly bright yellow!

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