These useful and easy-to-grow plants remind many people of holly (Ilex), though they're closely related to barberry (Berberis). Handsome, typically spiny leaves are divided into leaflets. Showy yellow flowers are borne in dense, rounded or spikelike clusters in late winter or spring. Blooms are followed by berrylike blue, blue-black, or red fruit that attracts birds. Prune to reduce size or lankiness, cutting selected stems to the ground or to a node. Avoid planting too close to walkways and sitting areas, where prickly foliage might snag passersby. Generally pest free and seldom browsed by deer. Provide well-drained soil.
M. aquifolium. OREGON GRAPE HOLLY. Zones US, MS, LS; USDA 6-8. Native from British Columbia to Northern California. Erect growth to 6 ft. or taller; spreads by underground stems to 5 ft. wide. Leaves 410 in. long, with five to nine very spiny-toothed, oval, 1- to 212-in. leaflets that are glossy green in some forms, dull green in others. Young growth is ruddy or bronzy; scattered mature red leaves. Purplish or bronzy leaves in winter, especially in Upper South or where plants are grown in full sun. Spring flowers in 2- to 3-in. clusters along stems; edible blue-black fruit with a powdery coating (makes good jelly).
'Compactum' grows 23 ft. tall and wide and spreads freely to make broad colonies. New leaves glossy, light to coppery green; mature leaves matte, medium green. 'King's Ransom' is an upright grower to 56 ft. tall and 45 ft. wide; dark bluish green leaves turn red-purple in winter. 'Orange Flame', 2 ft. tall and 3 ft. wide, has bronzy orange new growth and glossy green mature leaves that turn wine red in winter.
Oregon grape holly can take any exposure, though it does best with some shade in the Lower South and wind protection in the Upper South. Use in masses as foundation planting, in woodland garden, as low screen or garden barrier. Control height and form by pruning; if woody stems jut out, cut them down to ground (new growth fills in quickly). Unlike other mahonias, this one needs acid soil; develops chlorosis (yellow leaves with green veins) in alkaline soil. Regular water.
M. eurybracteata 'Soft Caress'. Zones MS, LS, CS; USDA 7-9. Grows 3 ft. tall and 312 ft. wide with soft textured, narrow, bamboo-like foliage. Thornless. Bright yellow flowers in winter, followed by dark blue berries. Great texture for containers, Asian gardens, and as specimen. Best in part to full shade. Regular water.
M. fortunei. CHINESE MAHONIA. Zones LS, CS; USDA 8-9. Native to China. Grows to 6 ft. high, 3 ft. wide; stems bear 10-in., matte green leaves with 7 to 13 spiny-toothed leaflets. Undersurface of leaves is yellowish green, with heavily netted veins. Flowers in short clusters in late summer to early fall; purple-black berries seldom develop. Plant has an unusual stiff charm and is grown for form and foliage, not fruit. Full sun to light shade. Moderate water.
M. gracilis. MEXICAN BARBERRY. Zones MS, LS, CS; USDA 7-9. Native to Mexico. To 3 ft. high, 4 ft. wide. Glossy leaves have 5 to 13 overlapping leaflets, each about 112 in. long. Foliage is most colorful in full sun: leaves are lime-green when new, darker green in summer, and a lively mix of reds, oranges, yellows, and light green in winter. Bright yellow, very fragrant blossoms in winter. Blue fruit with a powdery sheen. Tolerates extreme heat and poor soils, even hard-packed clay. Needs little or no supplemental water.
M. japonica Bealei Group (M. bealei). LEATHERLEAF MAHONIA. Zones US, MS, LS, CS; USDA 6-9. Native to China. Grows 1012 ft. high and 10 ft. wide, with strong pattern of vertical stems, horizontal foliage. Leaves over 1 ft. long, divided into 7 to 15 broad, leathery leaflets to 5in. long; leaflets grayish or bluish green above, olive-green below, with spiny-toothed edges. Very fragrant flowers in erect, 3- to 6-in.-long, spikelike clusters at branch ends in earliest spring. Blue berries with a powdery sheen. Distinguished plant against stone, brick, wood, glass. Takes sun in Upper and Middle South; best in part shade elsewhere. Plant in rich soil with ample organic material. Regular water.
M. oiwakensis lomariifolia (M. lomariifolia.) BURMESE MAHONIA. Zones LS, CS; USDA 8-9. Native to China. Showy plant to 612 ft. high and 6 ft. wide, with erect stems that branch only slightly. Young plants often have a single, vertical, unbranched stem; with age, plants send up more near-vertical branches from near base. Clustered near ends of these branches are horizontally held leaves to 2 ft. long. In outline, leaves look like stiff, crinkly, barbed ferns; each has as many as 47 thick, spiny, glossy, green leaflets arranged symmetrically along both sides of central stem. Flowers in winter or earliest spring grow in foot-long, erect clusters at branch tips, just above uppermost cluster of leaves. Blue fruit has a powdery sheen. Prune stems at varying heights to induce branching. Needs shade at least in afternoon to keep deep green color. Regular water.
M. xmedia. Zones MS, LS, CS; USDA 7-9. Hybrids between M. lomariifolia and M. japonica. Plants bear upright clusters of fragrant flowers in late fall and winter; generally resemble M. oiwakensislomariifolia and require the same conditions. 'Arthur Menzies' grows to 15 ft. high and half as wide. 'Buckland' and 'Charity' grow to 15 ft. high, 12 ft. wide; 'Faith' reaches 610 ft. high and 6 ft. wide; 'Hope' and 'Lionel Fortescue' grow to 6 ft. high and wide; 'Underway' and 'Winter Sun' reach 45 ft. high and as wide.
M. swaseyi. TEXAS MAHONIA. Zones MS, LS, CS, TS; USDA 7-11. Native to Texas and Mexico. Spiny growth to 35 ft. tall, 5 ft. wide. Leaves are rosy when young, light green in summer, reddish purple in fall and winter. Fragrant yellow spring flowers; bright red berries. Good barrier plant; can be sheared but looks most attractive when allowed to take its natural shape. Best in full sun; tolerates much heat. Provide well-drained soil. Needs little or no supplemental water.
M. trifoliolata (Berberis trifoliolata). AGARITA, TEXAS CURRANT. Zones MS, LS, CS; USDA 7-9. Native to Arizona, southern New Mexico, Texas. To 8 ft. tall, 6 ft. wide. Stiff, upright branches hold leathery, blue-green to gray-green leaves to 3 in. long, each consisting of three spiny-tipped leaflets. Fragrant yellow flowers in spring. Red berries ripen in summer; they make good jelly; also favored by wildlife. Needs good drainage and full sun. Tolerates heat and drought, thriving on little or no supplemental water.