Plant This: Chinese mahonia for Foliage Follow-Up


I inherited two Chinese mahonia (Mahonia fortunei) when I moved into this house, a plant previously unknown to me. In all my frequent nursery visits for 2-1/2 years, I never saw another one offered for sale, and it wasn’t until I visited the Rister-Armstrong Garden in Dallas that I ran across another one and asked the owners for the ID. Since then I’ve spotted it for sale at Red Barn Garden Center and perhaps at Shoal Creek Nursery. I have no idea why it isn’t more widely offered, since it’s been bulletproof in my shady, deer-infested front garden.


Chinese mahonia puts out lemon-yellow blooms in the fall, which contrast nicely against the deep-green foliage, but they are not the main attraction. The plant’s graceful shape, long, narrow leaves, and sturdy, undemanding nature are what won me over.


Like most mahonias (‘Soft Caress’ is a known exception), the leaves are surprisingly prickly if you stick your hand down into them. Deer ignore them in my garden, and they make a handsome, evergreen, medium-size screening plant or foundation shrub in full shade. I suspect the leaves might burn in sun, but maybe a few hours of morning sun would be OK. This is a zone 8-10 plant (sorry, northern gardeners), and in my shady, north-facing front garden it thrives on a once-a-week watering schedule.

Join me in posting about your lovely leaves of November for Foliage Follow-Up, a way to remind ourselves of the importance of foliage in the garden on the day after Bloom Day. Leave your link to your Foliage Follow-Up post in a comment. I really appreciate it if you’ll also include a link to this post in your own post (sharing link love!). If you can’t post so soon after Bloom Day, no worries. Just leave your link when you get to it.

Note: My Plant This posts are written primarily for gardeners in central Texas. The plants I recommend are ones I’ve grown myself and have direct experience with. I wish I could provide more information about how these plants might perform in other parts of the country, but gardening knowledge is local. Consider checking your local online gardening forums to see if a particular plant might work in your region.

All material © 2006-2012 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

16 Responses

  1. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    Not a lot of foliage here at this time of year after all the hard frosts Pam. I will try to get a foliage followup done though. This mahonia reminds me that I was sent a Soft Caress from Southern Living. It is a trial plant for me. I doubt it will live in my zone. I am hoping that it will though. It will be fun to see. I have lots of shade.

    I just planted my ‘Soft Caress’ trial plant today, Lisa. I already have another one that I planted last spring, and it did great through our long, hot summer. The opposite problem from the one you have. —Pam

  2. Surprisingly I had some foliage left even more than any blooms although there are still a few. The mahonia is an interesting plant and one I have seen in the SW where I am headed for the holidays. Thanks for hosting Pam. Here’s my link:

    http://gardenseyeview.com/2012/11/12/a-last-gasp-in-the-garden/

  3. Peter/Outlaw says:

    Mahonias are wonderful plants & we even have at least one native here in the Pacific Northwest. You are correct, we should all “plant this!”
    Thanks Pam for hosting the green party. That didn’t sound quite right. How about Thanks for hosting the foliage fest? http://www.outlawgarden.blogspot.com/2012/11/foliage-follow-up-november-2012.html

  4. That’s a graceful, yet strong, green. It may be worth investigating other Mahonia / Berberis for here, since NW species burn up and our natives are all large. This one you show looks compact and perfect for cool season interest. My autumnal take -
    http://desertedge.blogspot.com/2012/11/foliage-follow-up-112012.html

  5. This looks nicer than the Mahonias around here. Not as stiff…
    I’ll be looking for this one.
    Thanks…

    It doesn’t seem to be easy to find for some reason, Linda, but it’s well worth trying if you do. You might like ‘Soft Caress’ also. —Pam

  6. Hi Pam: This is now one of my favorite memes. Foliage is so exciting and underappreciated. I think I remember seeing this species of Mahonia at the New Orleans Botanical Garden. The flowers are pretty, but the foliage has character! http://plantpostings.blogspot.com/2012/11/november-more-vibrant-than-i-remember.html

    Hi, PP. Thanks so much for joining in! I wasn’t able to leave a comment on your post without an account, but here’s what I wanted to say: You found a lot of reasons to enjoy November. It’s a pretty good month here in Austin too. Thanks for sharing your lovely leaves for Foliage Follow-Up! —Pam

  7. Great plant Pam…and seeing how lovely your patch looks I’m more determined now to add to my Mahonia plantings.

    I cheated a bit for my foliage follow-up post and went on a field trip: http://dangergarden.blogspot.com/2012/11/foliage-follow-up-for-november-hits.html

    That’s not cheating—or if it is, I do it all the time myself. Leaves count for this meme, no matter where you find them. —Pam

  8. Pam, I haven’t been making blog rounds in quite a while, so I don’t know if your new blog design is actually new anymore, but I LOVE it! I did a short Foliage Follow-up post this month… http://acharlottegarden.blogspot.com/2012/11/goldflame-spirea-in-fall.html
    BTW, mahonia is a favorite of mine. I especially like ‘Soft Caress’.

    My redesign is only a couple of months old, Daricia. Thanks for the nice comment! —Pam

  9. Shirley says:

    What a great plant to inherit with the house.

    Highlighting a new bed of Duranta ‘Gold Mound’ in the front.

    http://rockoakdeer.blogspot.com/2012/11/foliage-follow-up-gold-mound-duranta.html

  10. ricki says:

    I focused on a single plant this time too, and here it is: http://bannersbyricki.com/archives/2652
    Your Mahonia is a beauty…bet it will be showing up in many more gardens after this post.

  11. Robin says:

    Wow, Pam, that’s great to know. I might have just the spot for this…I love those blooms, too!

    The trickiest part is locating the plant in nurseries, Robin. Let me know if you find them anywhere. —Pam

  12. Guy Paul says:

    I bought one of these today at Backyard Salvage Garden at Avenue F and Koenig. They had three left and were having a 50% off sale. Mine had a tag on it, recommending the plant for zones 7-10, part to full sun. I opted for part sun, and at that, it will coming from the East and South-East, so I think mine won’t burn.
    Some of the leaves have turned purplish. I like it, but wondered, do yours do that?

    Thanks for letting me know where you found it, Guy. No, my mahonia leaves stay green, with only a little yellowing if they get too much sun. Interesting that yours have turned a little purple. —Pam

  13. I just discovered this party and I think it is important to celebrate more than just the blooms in our gardens. To that end I am sharing a post on making some new gardens, and the only foliage in this one is pulled out of the ground for composting: http://astudentgardener.blogspot.ca/2012/11/lasagna-garden-part-2.html

  14. That is such an interesting plant – I really love those blooms!

  15. Clare Townes says:

    I have two of these growing in my front yard, which were there when I moved in, and I am happy to finally know what they are. Mine haven’t ever bloomed (wish they would), but the foliage is healthy and green. Thanks so much for identifying them. Now that I know what they are, I will try to find a couple more and put them in a slightly sunnier area to see if they bloom.

    They seem to really like bright shade, Clare, but not direct sun. —Pam