Now I finally know what serious bird watchers feel like – you are on the look-out for that bird rarely sighted in your area. Early off when you first started bird watching, this bird was on your list – but over the years, you resigned yourself to the bird being rare. Yet in the background your antenna is always up. And wow – there it is after years of not spotting it – can you believe it? You weren’t even seeking it. Well that is how I feel about finally stumbling into Oregon Grape Holly or Mahonia aquifolium..
Mahonia aquiflorium is neither a grape nor a holly but a member of the barberry family. The specific variety I purchased is ‘Orange Flame’. The leaves are about 2 inches long and ringed with spiny teeth making them rabbit and deer unfriendly. New leaves are orange-bronze and stand out against the deep green mature foliage. They bear clusters of fragrant yellow blooms followed by powder-blue to black grape-like fruit.
‘Orange Flame’ does best in light shade, but will tolerate full sun if kept well watered. It will grow to become 2 feet tall and 3 feet wide. It also has a wide pH tolerance unlike holly that requires acid soil and in my garden means amending the soil. Oregon Grape Holly is also supposed to be completely immune to insect and disease problems – we shall see. But it does seem that this shrub is easy, and easy is what I am looking for.
‘Mahonia aquifolium’ is native to British Columbia down to northern California. It grows this side of the Rockies from Arkansas to Chicago – so Zone 5 tolerant. Since I purchased this shrub from a nursery in mid-July, my shrubs were probably a bit stressed. They have started to turn red but consequently are really pretty.
Oregon Grape Holly replaced our Kerria Japonica ‘Pleniflora’ which is a beautiful shrub, but grew too quickly and blocked the view from my kitchen window. We moved the Kerria to another part of the yard – they replaced very old (and sun loving) lilac bushes that never bloomed the entire 14 years we lived here. So it was time to clear the lilacs out and replace them with Kerria Japonica – shrubs that prefer the shade!
Getting back to the Oregon Grape Holly – in doing some research on this very cool shrub, turns out that I am not the only one who thought this was pretty cool. It turns out that Lewis and Clark found it to be a beautiful shrub over 200 years ago and brought the ‘grapes’ (seeds) back to Thomas Jefferson from their expedition into the newly acquired Louisiana Territory. The intrepid explorers and their band picked seeds and herbarium specimens along the Columbia River as they headed towards the Pacific. Of the 178 new plants Lewis collected, Oregon grape holly was the best general garden shrub for eastern gardens.
My new shrubs look so pretty next to my weeping evergreen and offers nice contrast to the Lemon Daddy hydrangea shrub and the new Japanese maple tree that I got for only $12. Such a colorful selection of shrubs right outside my kitchen window! These plantings make for a beautiful backdrop to watch the birds at the suet feeder and birdbath. Yes I do like birds, but I wouldn’t classify myself as an avid bird watcher.
Not sure why more nurseries around here don’t carry this shrub – I think it is a sleeper in the Chicago area. I always thought Oregon Grape Holly would be a perfect shrub addition to my garden and for now it has lived up to its mystique! Let’s see how the fares after our Chicago winter…