Prickly but pretty

Because I am often asked to recommend plants for other people’s gardens it is good to have a list of reliable, crowd-pleasing plants tucked away at the back of my mind. Everyone has different tastes and a lot of plants that I consider beautiful would probably be considered dull by many. Lots of lovely plants need rather special conditions and even the most common plant may not thrive everywhere. I particularly like anything that blooms in winter or early spring because I am in the garden all year round. But I know that many people like to stay indoors when it is cold and winter flowers have little advantage to them. But I would recommend that they try a few of the easiest winter-flowering shrubs and they will discover that the ‘dead’ season in the garden is actually very short.

One group of plants that I consider absolutely essential is the mahonias. Mahonias are evergreen and closely related to berberis. In fact they are considered to be berberis by many botanists but, as gardeners, we can separate them by their leaves being divided into leaflets and the stems not having spines – though the leaves are often fiercely armed.

Mahonia leaves are very prickly! Mahonia ‘Winter Sun’

The most popular of all is ‘Charity’ a hybrid in the group of hybrids called x ‘media’ which includes siblings such as ‘Winter Sun’ and ‘Lionel Fortescue’. ‘Charity’ and its kin are wonderful plants. The dark green leaves are about 30cm long, with many leaflets arranged in rosettes atop upright, brown stems. Without pruning, and in shady spots, plants soon become tall and rather scrawny, looking like palm trees. I like this look but if it does not suit you simply prune, in spring, to where you want it to branch out.

The first I grew was Mahonia bealei, bought when I was working at Nag’s Hall. It has spreading rather than upright flower clusters. Mahonias are not fussy about soil type and this grew well in clay over chalk.

In late summer the flower buds start to appear at the top of mahonia stems and these open in late October and last till the New Year. The flowers are bright yellow and sweetly fragrant. If the weather is kind the flowers will be followed by masses of almost black berries which birds love to feast upon.

Mahonias often have coloured foliage in cold weather, especially in exposed sites.

This is a plant that will easily reach 2m high but can be pruned to keep it shorter. ‘Soft Caress’ is a recent introduction and is unusual for its ‘soft’ foliage which looks a bit like a bamboo. It is great for a container and for small gardens. I have it planted in a shady spot and it is slow growing compared to my ‘Charity’.

Mahonia aquifolium forms a rounded shrub and blooms in spring

Far less popular, but very useful, is Mahonia aquifolium, the Oregon grape. This tough, low, suckering shrub has a more compact habit and produces tight clusters of yellow flowers in spring. It will grow in shade, even dry shade, and often has bright red older leaves in cold weather.

All mahonias are easy to grow and are interesting all year. They are also wonderful plants to give as gifts because they flower at a time of year when there is not much happening in the garden.

Jobs this week

Mow the lawn at any opportunity – it could be the last of the season. Wait till the grass is dry and pick up faller’s leaves with the mower.

Pick the last apples and pears and store till ripe.

Rhubarb will be dying back and old clumps can be divided now.

Net ponds to help prevent fallen leaves from dropping in and causing poor water quality

Stop feeding houseplant and reduce watering, but do not allow them to dry out

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *