Mahonia for Winter Sunshine

Clusters of small yellow flowers of the Oregon grape surrounded by its Holly-like leaves (Mahonia aquifolium)
Sunny yellow of Mahonia aquifolium, the Oregon Grape
Photo credit: Syp [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

When the dark days of winter set in, Mahonia gives a blast of sunshine in an otherwise drab garden. The type species Mahonia aquifolium above is named after Bernard McMahon, a horticulturalist who was born in Ireland (circa 1775) and settled in Philadelphia in the United States. He is best-known for his work The American Gardener’s Calendar. His namesake plant works hard at those times in the gardening calendar when winter colour is hard to find.


There are around 70 evergreen species in the genus. Mahonia belongs in the Berberidaceae or Barberry family. Not all botanists agree on the current classifications. According to Christenhusz, Fay and Chase in Kew’s Plants of the World (2017), the distinction between the 2 genera Berberis and Mahonia is vague. Mahonia is currently included within Berberis in the Berberidoideae subfamily.

Colourful Flowers and Fruits

The evergreen leaves resemble holly leaves and can change colour as they age and/or in response to cold weather. The berries can put on a show too, further emphasising the original inflorescence structures: long terminal clusters or spreading racemes.

Looking down on the long fruit-bearing clusters of a Mahonia species © Karen Andrews

Oregon Grape is somewhat untidier than other Mahonia species. It also has the unfortunate tendency to produce suckers. A dwarf or standard species like Mahonia media Winter Sun may be more suitable for your garden.

Mahonia lomariifolia at Kew Gardens. © Karen Andrews

Medicinal Uses

Mahonia has a long history of medicinal use, especially in Chinese medicine. According to Jian-Ming He and Qing Mu (2015) in Volume 175 of the Journal of Ethnopharmacology, it has the following applications:

  • tuberculosis
  • periodontitis
  • dysentery
  • pharyngolaryngitis
  • eczema
  • wounds.

Chinese medicine considers that most Mahonia species relieve internal heat, eliminate dampness, remove toxins, suppress pain, promote blood circulation, inhibit coughs and alleviate inflammation. 

Mahonia contains berberine. It is commonly taken orally as a treatment for diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure in Western medicine. It is sometimes used to treat burns and sores as well. It has a host of other applications, although research is ongoing. Usage is not suitable for everyone without medical advice and supervision.

Dispelling the Myth

There is a myth that you must grow native plants in your garden for wildlife. While it is undoubtedly desirable to have native plants, relatively little is in flower to supply nectar in December. The local wild flower specimens were very scrawny and few on the ground today. It was a sunny day. The reported high temperature was 9ºC, although it felt slightly warmer in the sun. Three to four Bumblebees were feasting on Mahonia inflorescences.

According to the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, the hardy Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) is still active at this time of year, while other bumblebees are in hibernation. Mahonia is one of their favoured plant species.

Two animations of active Bumblebees on local Mahonia inflorescences appear below:

 Active Bumblebee on Mahonia inflorescence on 11 December 2018
Animation © Karen Andrews
Animation of selected bumblebee pictures flying to and landing on Mahonia inflorescences
Active Bumblebee flying and landing on Mahonia inflorescence on 11 December 2018
Animation: © Karen Andrews

Copyright Note

Karen does not seek or receive any commercial interest or advantage from this blog. She is not promoting any business venture. She simply loves to share fascinating facts about plants. These pages illustrate her love of plants, botany, biodiversity, gardens and creative expression. There is always so much to learn about plant diversity. This blog is designed as a showcase for photography, commentary on plants and wildlife, gardens and other places visited, horticulture and related topics. Viewpoints are her own, not those of her employer.

© Karen Andrews 2018 onwards. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karen Andrews and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

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