Most of the time this evergreen shrub adopts an unassuming role in the garden. A stiff upright- growing plant with prickly leaves that resembles a holly, it doesn’t command our attention like a camellia or a Japanese maple. That is, until January when magnificent sprays of bright yellow flowers bloom in spike-like clusters. The faded blooms are replaced by blue-black berries which the birds relish. This is one of those plants that must be planted in the right place, as the leaves are sharp and a little mean. It should not be planted close to walkways or where people sit or little children play. Mahonias do not seem to be bothered by either pests or diseases but they can get leggy. Use judicious pruning when needed to remove the leggiest canes to the ground.
I have many different mahonias in my yard but ‘Arthur Menzies’ (ordered from Heronswood Gardens, now out of business) may be a favorite. Friend and gardener Hayes Jackson told me this was a plant I should own. He was right; the beautiful glossy green leaves and the wonderful sprays of bright yellow blooms have earned a place in my garden’s heart. The sprays, resembling mini fireworks exploding in the landscape, are a special gift in January when the days tend to be gray and dreary. Although ‘Arthur Menzies’ will grow in full sun to part shade, mine is in filtered shade and doing well. This mahonia can reach 15 feet tall but not nearly that wide; in the ten or so years in my grden it has not reached that size. It is not a suitable choice for a foundation planting. It might make a nice screen as long as you plant it where no one can get stuck.
When I began to garden decades ago I went for all the splash and substance for spring and summer, an error commonly made by many gardeners, especially first timers. But gardening and the precious gifts that a garden can bring can occur twelve months of the year. A mahonia is only one of many wonderful plants that brightens the landscape at unexpected times throughout the year. So garden for the whole year. It takes a little practice and a lot of thought, but it is a worthwhile effort.