From the Sperry Gardens – January, 2013

Some plants deserve extra credit for growing happily in total shade (most plants cannot), being evergreen, flowering in the winter (when nothing else is blooming), producing beautiful fruit clusters that birds love in the spring, for staying manageable in size, and for never showing any sign of freeze, insect or disease damage. Why, if you sat down at a drafting table to draw up the perfect plant, it might come out looking just about like a leatherleaf mahonia.

I have probably 40 of these nandina cousins scattered about in our landscape. (In fact, their growth habit is quite similar to that of nandinas.) Not a one of them gets one moment’s sunlight in summer. That’s the one thing about which they’re intolerant. Actually, it’s far more difficult to find plants that can handle the shade than it is to find those that thrive in the sun, so that need for shade is a strong asset.

Other than watering them weekly (on average) during the growing season, and fertilizing them in early spring, late spring and fall, I’ve rarely done anything to maintain my mahonias. I’ve had this bed for probably 30 years. We did go into it with lopping shears several years ago to remove a few stalks that had grown out-of-hand. Otherwise, that’s about it.

Most nurseries now offer standard leatherleaf mahonia. It’s still my favorite, even though it’s quite spiny. However, I’m hearing really nice remarks about ‘Soft Caress,’ its more sociable cousin. These plants are not inexpensive, but the rewards are worth the investment.

Posted by Neil Sperry
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