Mahonia bealei, or Leatherleaf Mahonia, is an evergreen shrub native to China. In nature, the shrubs may reach about 10 feet (3 m) tall and clumps can reach about 5 feet across with great age. The holly-like leaves are up to 18 inches (45 cm) long, with 5-8 pairs of leaflets. Leaflets are ovate with spiny margins, yellow-green above and pale gray-green underneath, with a broad terminal leaf up to 8 inches (20.3 cm) long. Leaflets are on red stems, and old growth bark is a light grey-brown and deeply furrowed. Leaves are gathered at the end of stem giving the plant a layered look. I first encountered this shrub in a neighbor’s yard and inquired about it. They didn’t know what it was since they had just bought the house. I set out to find out about it and to buy one for my house. None of our nurseries or garden centers sold them. In the spring, I collected seed and grew my own. These are great shrubs for the shade garden here in Oklahoma. Plants are hardy in the landscape in USDA zone 6-9.
Blooming: Plants start their blooming process in late January here in Oklahoma. The plant blooms at the ends of stems, with erect racemes that reach 4 inches (10 cm) long and pale yellow flowers up to 0.25 inches (6.35 mm) across. Very showy! Flowers are followed by a powdery blue fruit that looks like clusters of grapes.
Culture: Mahonia bealei need a rich moist soil with a partial to full shade location here in Oklahoma. I planted mine on the north facing side of the house. We worked peat moss and sand into the soil before planting. This helps in making the soil a little bit acid and helps with the drainage here in red dirt country. The seedlings were transplanted outside at 1 year old from seed. Now at 6 years old, the plants have attained a height of 5 feet (1.5 m) in height with a spread of 4 feet (1.2 m). We fertilize the plant regularly during the summer months with a balanced fertilizer and the soil is kept moist. I was told that the plant would not survive our hot summer which is why nurseries don't sell them. I highly recommend this plant for the shade garden.
Propagation: Mahonia bealei is propagated by division of large clumps, removal of offshoots and from seed. Seed collected and cleaned in late spring will germinate with excellent results. Seeds that have been cold stratified for 2 month have more uniform germination. If seed is collected and promptly sown, plants are 2-3 inches tall by September and should be introduced into containers before planting out. Plants at 1 year old are better to use in the landscape.
Mahonia bealei was featured as Plant of the Week March 7-13, 2008.
Guide to Past Plants-of-the-Week:
Cal's Plant of the Week was provided as a service by the University of Oklahoma Department of Microbiology & Plant Biology and specifically the late Cal Lemke, who used to be OU's botany greenhouse grower and an avid gardener at home as well. If the above links don't work, then try the overview site. You may also like to look at the thumbnail index. ©1998-2017 All rights reserved.