How To Grow And Care For Mahonia

The shiny, shapely leaves of this beautiful shrub will add texture to your Southern garden.

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These eye-catching, easy-to-grow plants remind many people of holly (Ilex), though they're closely related to barberry (Berberis). Handsome, spiny leaves are divided into leaflets that change colors with the seasons. Showy yellow flowers bloom from dense, rounded or spike-like clusters in late winter or spring. Blooms are followed by berrylike blue, blue-black, or red fruit that attracts birds. Plant as a single, eye-catching plant or amass multiples in a shrub bed.

Prune to reduce size or leggy growth, 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. Mahonia is pest-free and seldom browsed by deer. Provide well-drained soil and filtered light during the hottest part of the day.

Here is what you need to know about growing and caring for mahonia in the South.

Plant Attributes

Common Name Mahonia
Botanical Name Mahonia Spp. 
Family Berberidaceae 
Plant Type Shrub
Mature Size Varies
Sun Exposure Partial Shade
Soil Type Moist, well-drained
Bloom Time Spring
Flower Color Yellow
Hardiness Zones 6-11 (USDA)
Native Area North America, Asia

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Mahonia Care

Mahonia is a low-maintenance plant with few care requirements. Add rich organic matter to the soil when planting. Once the plant is in the ground, mulch its base. Water regularly the first year to establish growth. Mahonia needs an occasional pruning to reshape or remove woody canes. It is both pest- and deer-resistant.


Even though mahonia will grow in full sun and full shade, it prefers part shade during the hottest part of the day to filter the light.


Mahonia will be happy if you amend your soil with a few inches of organic matter. The Mississippi State Extension Service recommends adding 2 pounds of a 5-10-5 fertilizer per 100 square feet of planting area. Turn the soil 8 to 10 inches deep.


It is important to water your new mahonia planting in the first year as it becomes established. Water deeply when needed. Once the plant is established, it will grow well with rainfall, but you might need to supplement during long hot and dry spells.

Temperature and Humidity

Mahonia tolerates the heat and humidity of our Southern climate well. Mulch around the base of the plant will help the plant retain water.


Feed established plantings in March with a slow-release, balanced fertilizer like an 8-8-8 at the rate of 1 pound per 100 square feet, according to the Mississippi State University Extension Service.


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Types of Mahonia

We grow two types of mahonia in the South. The Mahonia aquifolium, or Oregon Holly Grape, and Mahonia bealei, or Leatherleaf Mahonia. 

Oregon Grape Holly (Mahonia Aquifolium): This plant is native from British Columbia to Northern California and grows 6 ft or taller and 5 ft wide. Young growth is bronzy, mature growth is green turning purple to bronze in winter, especially in the US where plants are grown in full sun. It will grow best with some shade in the LS and wind protection in the US. Flowers grow in 2 to 3 in. clusters along stems followed by edible, bluish-black fruit with a powdery coating. Control mahonia’s shape by pruning woody stems that jut out, cutting them back to the ground. Requires acidic soil. Water regularly to establish. Grows in US, MS, LS Zone 6-8.

  • ‘Compactum’ grows 2-3 ft tall and wide.
  • ‘Kings Ransom’ is an upright grower that reaches 6 ft tall and up to 5 ft wide. Its dark blue-green leaves turn red-purple in winter.
  • ‘Orange Flame’ grows 2 ft tall and 3 ft wide with a bronze colored new growth, glossy green mature leaves that turn the color of red wine in winter.
  • ‘Soft Caress’ (Mahonia Eurybracteata) grows in MS, LS, CS Zones 7-9. This thornless variety grows 3 ft tall and wide. Part to full shade.
  • Chinese Mahonia (Mahonia Fortunei) grows in LS, CS Zones 8-9. This native Chinese species grows up to 6 ft. tall and 3 ft wide with spiny leaves. Flowers bloom in short clusters in late summer to early fall. Full sun to part shade.
  • Mexican Barberry (Mahonia Gracilis) grows most colorful when planted in full sun with leaves that are lime-green when new, darker green in summer, and a lively mix of red, orange, yellow, and light green in winter. Grows in MS, LS, CS Zones 7-9. Tolerates extreme heat and poor soil—even packed clay.

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Leatherleaf Mahonia (Mahonia bealei):

  • Mahonia Japonica Bealei Group (Mahonia Bealei) grows in US, MS, LS, CS Zones 6-9 and up to 12 ft tall and 10 ft wide with strong vertical stems and horizontal foliage. The leaves are about a foot long with fragrant spiky floral clusters in the early spring. Takes sun in US, MS, but plant in part shade in other Zones.
  • Mahonia Oiwakensis Lomariifolia (Mahonia Lomariifolia) is native to Asia and grows up to 12 ft tall and 6 ft wide with erect stems. Flowers in winter or earliest spring grow in foot-long, erect clusters. Plant in the afternoon shade to maintain a deep green color. Grows in LS, CS Zones 8-9.
  • Mahonia Xmedia is a hybrid between Mahonia lomariifolia and Mahonia japonica that grows in MS, LS, CS Zones 7-9. Buckland and 'Charity' grow to 15 ft tall, 12 ft wide; 'Faith' reaches 10 ft tall and 6 ft wide; 'Hope' and 'Lionel Fortescue' grow to 6 ft tall and wide; 'Underway' and 'Winter Sun' reach up to 5 ft tall and wide.
  • Texas Mahonia (Mahonia Swaseyi) is native to Texas and Mexico, growing best in MS, LS, CS, and TS Zones 7-11. Leaves are rosy when young, light green in summer, reddish purple in fall and winter. Fragrant yellow spring flowers; bright red berries. Best in full sun; tolerates much heat.
  • Agarita, Texas Currant (Mahonia Trifoliolata) grows 8 ft tall and 6 ft wide. Needs good drainage and full sun. Fragrant yellow flowers in spring give way to red berries that ripen in summer. Plant in MS, LS, CS Zones 7-9.
leatherleaf mahonia

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Pruning is a good way to shape your mahonia. Prune back branches that appear overcrowded or stems that have become leggy. Aim to remove about a third of old canes to encourage new ones to grow.


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How to Grow Mahonia From Seed

They readily germinate (birds volunteer mahonia all over the place), but if you want to plant mahonia, regardless of species or selection, we recommend buying one from the nursery.

Common Problems With Mahonia

Mahonia is a relatively low-maintenance plant but it can develop rust, which presents as little brown spots on the leaves. To prevent, water the plant at the base and keep water off of foliage. If planted in alkaline soil, mahonia will develop chlorosis, or leaves that turn yellow.

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