Magic mahonia deserves a re-assessment | Gardening recommendation

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Magic mahonia deserves a second look | Gardening advice

SSome plants seem to carry an unnecessary weight of cultural baggage among gardeners. If these were newly introduced exotic specimens, they would likely sell for a fortune to enthusiastic auction-goers thanks to their incredible beauty, hardy growing habits, and overall exceptional garden worthiness. However, due to cultural associations tied to their traditional usage, we seem to regard them with disdain or, worse, immediately glance past them as if they weren’t there. That means we’re missing out on some wonderful gardening opportunities. And one of the best is the much-maligned mahonia.

These hardy, evergreen plants became a popular choice in recreational gardening in the ’70s and ’80s. Able to survive for years with virtually no maintenance and provide a permanently green backdrop of virtually indestructible foliage, they have been deployed on thousands of roundabouts, supermarket car parks and new housing developments.

Unfortunately, even the incredibly fragrant flowers weren’t enough to shake us out of our “parking lot plant” snobbery

Unfortunately, even the incredibly fragrant flowers that pop up in the dead of winter, just when you need them most, and berries that are a magnet for wildlife, weren’t enough appeal to shake us out of our “parking lot plant” snobbery . I’ve often thought that if they had more aristocratic cultivar names and flowered in time for the Chelsea Flower Show, our associations would be very different.

But if you delve into all the options available, I think even the most determined Oregon Grape hater could be won over by their wondrous diversity. Meurybracteata ‘Soft Caress’, for example, is one of the more modern introductions, producing meter-high mounds of fluffy, feathery foliage that look to me like clumps of house palms or exotic osmoxylon. It would be more at home in James Cameron’s avatar forest than planted next to your local bus stop. Unlike other more common species, this strain flowers in late summer and early fall and has a warm, honey-like scent that goes perfectly with its clusters of buttery yellow flowers.

If you want something even more outlandish, M gracilipes will blow your mind with its showy pinkish-red autumn flowers, borne by plants whose new shoots are blushed with burgundy and silvery undersides. It’s also perfect for small gardens, as its slow growth rate and elegant stature of up to 1.5m make it a wonderful plant that won’t suddenly take up your space.

Finally, I would ask you to give the more traditional M x media ‘Winter Sun’ a shot. This hybrid form is even more vigorous than the common M japonica it evokes, producing towering rosettes of sulphurous yellow flower spikes. And it has such a strong lily of the valley scent that you will smell it before you see it, from November to March.

Follow James on Twitter @Botanygeek