Oregon holly not a holly, but nearly a barberry
Posted: Tuesday, February 23, 2010 8:01 pm
By: By Jimmy Williams
Mentioned briefly here a few weeks ago, in the context of shrubs that will thrive in wet conditions, was the Oregon grape holly. It is not a holly at all, nor even remotely related to genus Ilex, in which all hollies reside. Strangely enough, it is closely related to barberries, to which it bears virtually no resemblance.
It is, instead, Mahonia bealei (Mahonia aquifolium sometimes takes on the same common name) and indeed does superficially resemble hollies in leafage. This mahonia’s leaves seem like giant holly leaves and can reach 15 inches long in divided leaflets with up to 15 on a stem.
Though it will stand wet conditions, they are by no means necessary for survival. It will, in fact, thrive on dry sites, but be slower in growth.
Mahonia bealei is a shrub par excellence for shady conditions, and results will be better with plenty of shade. I have several specimens in deep shade, and they outshine a few that are in quite a bit of sun. In the latter case, the leathery, evergreen leaves will scald and scorch in hot weather, while in shade they remain a rich, deep green year round.
Oregon holly produces in late winter spires up to a foot long of chrome yellow flowers with a lemon scent that wafts freely on the air on damp days and make for fine cut flowers at time when there is a relative dearth of material available. That is, if one can get around the spiny leaves, which are capable of goring a bull. Long gauntlets are the only answer while cutting branches.
Once the stems are harvested, the leaves may then be removed, while still wearing the gauntlets, and other greenery substituted in their place for the final indoor arrangement. Excellent for this are the variegated leaves of Italian arum, which stay bright green all winter except in the severest weather.
Following the bloom, bright blue berries resembling large oblong grapes are borne on the upright spikes. These, though tart, are said to make a palatable jelly. Birds relish them, with the result being a plethora of plantlets appearing all over the garden. When they are where you want them, simply leave well enough alone and allow them to grow into free shrubs. Otherwise, hand pull them while small or spot-shoot them with herbicide.
Oregon holly grows in the manner of a nandina, the branches never dividing and simply growing taller and taller, up to 15 feet over many years if left to their own devices. A few of the oldest stems may be shortened back by varying degrees in early spring. These will re-sprout at the cuts and form shorter branches, preventing a leggy appearance when pruning is nonexistent. However, there is something to be said for old, multi-stemmed specimens which will gain, over many years, a picturesque, bony facade.
Mahonia bealei is one of only a few mahonias that are winter hardy here. New hybrids are being produced between it and more tropical species. Some of these bloom in fall, earlier than Oregon holly, but their hardiness is suspect. Breeders will eventually develop, I predict, numerous varieties that will be hardy and provide larger blooms at different seasons and even in different colors.
Editor’s note: Jimmy Williams is production superintendent at The Paris Post-Intelligencer, where he also writes this column.
Published in The Messenger 2.23.10