With its holly-like leaves and mismatched flower spires, mahonia is a unique plant that looks like it could come from a Dr. Seuss book.
This shrub has clusters of fragrant flowers that bloom in late winter and by summer will mature into small fruits that birds love to eat. If you've been on the hunt for a shade- and drought-tolerant plant, mahonia may be just the shrub for you.
Mahonia plants thrive in the shade and are drought tolerant once established. Both their yellow flowers in winter and blue-purple berries in the spring will add some unusual interest to shady areas in your landscape.
Mahonia is actually the name of an entire genus of woody, evergreen shrubs. There are dozens of species of Mahonia, but only a few work well in Florida.
Mahonia fortunei and Mahonia bealei are both on the Florida-Friendly plant list. However, it should be noted that M. bealei, commonly called leatherleaf mahonia, has not yet been assessed by the UF/IFAS Assessment of Non-native Plants in Florida's Natural Areas and has been reported as generally invasive in other parts of the Southeastern United States.
M. bealei has large, stiff, pointed green leaves; in full shade they'll be a dark, blue-green color. This species grows to between 5 and 10 feet tall, and spreads 3 to 4 feet wide. Its blue-purple berries are very popular with birds. Leatherleaf mahonia grows best in North Florida.
M. fortunei, also called Chinese mahonia or Fortune's mahonia, is Florida-Friendly and grows in Central and North Florida. This beautiful shrub is smaller than M. bealei, reaching 3 to 5 feet tall with an equal spread. The narrow green leaflets are spiny and have a fern-like appearance. Like most mahonias used in the landscape, it produces fragrant yellow flowers.
There is also a Mahonia eurybracteata cultivar named 'Soft Caress' that offers great texture in the garden. This cultivar has unusual, narrow, thread-like leaflets that lack the sharp points of other mahonias. 'Soft Caress' grows 3 feet tall and spreads 3 to 4 feet wide. In Central Florida, this plant blooms in the fall.
A mahonia rarely seen here is Mahonia aquifolium, commonly called Oregon grapeholly, as it's native to that state. It grows best in zone 8 and farther north, so it's only an option for those in the Florida panhandle.
Planting and Care
Mahonia can be planted in North and Central Florida gardens in areas with full or partial shade. These slow-growing plants should be spaced 2 to 3 feet apart in the garden. They should be watered regularly until established; after that, these shrubs are drought tolerant. Mahonia spreads by a suckering root system, so be on the lookout for suckers if you don't want your plant spreading. You can create a dense shrub by pruning back the tallest stems in early spring to encourage new growth at the base.
For more information on mahonia and other landscape plants, contact your local Extension office.