The Elusive Oregon Grape Holly

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 'Orange Flame'

(Photo: Mahonia aquiflorium 'Orange Flame'/MyShadyGarden)

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.

Mahonia aquiflorium 'Orange Flame'

Photo: Mahonia aquiflorium 'Orange Flame'/MyShadyGarden)

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…

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18 thoughts on “The Elusive Oregon Grape Holly

  1. Audrey, now you’ve gone and done it – written such an evocative piece about mahonia that it reminds me of my mahonia love, a love I’ve not thought about since I left Georgia, where I found it readily and grew it easily. That fragrance, those dusty berries: What’s not to love. Now, in Connecticut, where I haven’t seen it, I want it. Again.

    • Sounds like your garden has some space to accommodate this beauty. I hope your quest won’t prove to be as lengthy as mine was. Let me know if you find it…

  2. Yikes! I just came back to DE from a visit in VA with an armload of mahonia aquifoliums (well… 3)! The problem is that 2 of the tags read “”Orangee Flame” Oregon Grape Holly (6-10 ft.) and 1 reads “Orange Flame” (2-3 ft.) Yet, I am unable to find ANY reference to the “Orangee” — even on Monrovia’s website! Any input? They LOOK exactly the same!

    • Hi Gayle-

      I wish I knew more about the mahonias. As you might gather from the piece, mahonias are quite rare around Chicagoland. My advice would be to follow the tags. If you had a group of three, put the one with the tag indicating it is shorter in front. My guess is that there was a typo on the tags – but that is just a guess.

    • The grape hollies look great! We had wonderful blooms this early spring – I will have to post – lovely fragrance and it looks like I will be getting lots of “grapes”!

  3. This shrub is a volunteer in our yard, and has overtaken every little space of dirt. Every spring it pops up in new places. HOW do I get rid of it? I trim it back to the ground, but it just grows more and more, and spreads like wildfire. HELP!

    • In the Chicago area, Oregon Grape Holly is clearly not a native plant. So we really don’t have the problem of it growing rampantly. As a specimen I find it to be a really pretty plant.

      I guess it calls into question, when does a plant become a weed? Perhaps when it becomes too invasive!

    • I’m wondering where you live. In the Chicago area this shrub is a rarity! a treasured specimen in fact. Funny how our perception changes isn’t it?

  4. Mahonia is also taking over our backyard!! My husband is out with the chainsaw every weekend while I follow behind painting the stumps. It is extremely invasive and I feel it will be a never-ending battle. It is on the invasive species list for Georgia, but continues to be sold in our nurseries!

    • Thanks Annie for your comments. In the Chicago area the mahonia is rare and I think our weather tames the rampant growth you are experiencing. Too much of anything sort of defines what a weed is. If you think about it, dandelions are actually cheery, rather pretty flowers. But because they show up in all the wrong places without being asked – they are a weed.

  5. I’ve learnt so much in so very little time from just reading your site alone.

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    • Thanks so much! Glad you enjoyed the content. I was a student of shade gardening and wanted to share. Alas not so much time these days to ponder my garden…

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