Grape Holly is a shrub with winter appeal


Recently, someone asked me about shrubs that were showy in winter. Obviously, camellias fit that bill as do winterberry holly and a few others. Mahonia, often known as grape holly, is an underused adaptable shrub that also has winter attributes.

I have one that is in full bloom right now. It has bright yellow flowers which will give way to purple grape-like fruits later. Broad, multibladed leaves are spiny and shiny. Cut off a twig and you will find the wood is yellow. That shouldn’t be a surprise as this is not a holly at all. It’s a member of the barberry family.

Barberries have yellow wood, not that it’s used for anything commercially. Several years ago, my daughter conducted a science project using natural plant dyes that could be collected in winter. Mahonia wood makes a beautiful colorfast yellow dye for fabric.

There are many species of Mahonia. The most common is Oregon grape holly, but numerous others are commercially available. One gaining popularity is called ‘Soft Caress’. It is a spineless cultivar that has a palm-like appearance. It also doesn’t get too tall, making it useful in more situations.

‘Wintersun’ and ‘Charity’ are taller cultivars that make great specimen plants. They usually attain heights of 10-15 feet. Yellow flowers adorn these plants from late fall to late winter.

These evergreen barberry cousins thrive in moist but well-drained soil. Soil pH is not very critical. Grape hollies also are best in partial sun but will tolerate substantial shade. One thing to consider is that they will bloom less in shadier locations.

Most literature list hardiness as zone seven or possibly six in sheltered locations. Some sources claim it to be hardy to 30 below (zone 4), but I think that’s pushing it.

I have one planted next to a loquat. The loquat was nearly totally killed by last winter’s extreme cold during the first week of January. The grape holly wasn’t hurt a bit.

Sometimes they are difficult to establish. However, once ensconced into their new home they require very little care. They aren’t heavy fertilizer users and they don’t require much pruning. However, plants can be encouraged to grow prostrate if taller canes are removed. In some situations, this can be effective.

Few diseases or insects attack Mahonias either. Deer usually leave them alone, but in winter if food sources are short, deer will nibble at them, especially the flowers.

Colorful fruits are edible but quite sour. With a generous influx of sugar, they do make a flavorful jelly or jam. Usually no pectin needs to be added as fruits are rich in it already.

Medicinally, grape holly is a major player. Stem and root tissues are used to treat stomach ulcers, acid reflux and other digestive system maladies. Herbalists prescribe topical formulations to combat psoriasis.

Grape holly also contains a chemical called berberine. This is often used to treat high blood sugar. Holistic practitioners also use berberine to combat high blood pressure. Those with low blood pressure or people with organ transplants should avoid it.

Close-up of Mahonia inflorescence. This specimen is in full sun and still doing well.

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (tmanzer@ecpps.k12.nc.us).

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About tedmanzer

I grew up in Old Town Maine and got a B.S. at the University of Maine in Plant Sciences/ minor in Botany. From there I moved to West Virginia and earned a M.S. in Agronomy at WVU. I also met my wife there. She grew up in rural WV as the daughter of tenant farmers who raised cattle and hogs. Their lifestyle at times was one of subsistence and I learned a lot from them. I've always been a foraging buff, but combining my formal botanical knowledge with their practical 'Foxfire-type' background opened up my eyes a little more. I now teach agriculture to high school students at Northeastern High School in Elizabeth City, NC. My wife teaches with me and we make a great team. I also write a weekly nature/foraging column for the local paper (dailyadvance.com). I also have written several Christian nature/adventure novels that I plan to publish eventually. One is a five book family saga I call the 'Forgotten Virtues' series. In the first book, Never Alone, a young boy comes of age after his father dies in a plane crash, and he has to make it alone. Never Alone is now available in paperback, Kindle and Nook. The second book, Strange Courage, takes Carl from his High School graduation to his recovery from a nasty divorce. The third book, Second Chances, takes Carl from his ex-wife's death and the custody of his son to his heroic death at age 59. The fourth book, Promises Kept, depicts how his grandchildren react and adjust to his death. In the final book, Grandfather's Way, his youngest and most timid granddaughter emerges from the shadow of her overachieving family and accomplishes more in four months than most do in a lifetime. I use many foraging references with a lot of the plants I profile in these articles in those books.
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5 Responses to Grape Holly is a shrub with winter appeal

  1. tonytomeo says:

    Grape holly? I am not familiar with that name. We know Mahonia aquifolium at Oregon grape, the state flower of Oregon. Mahonia lomariifolia is like an extreme mahonia that was a traditional component of landscaping for the old Eichler homes. It is so sculptural and weird. Back then, gardeners knew to take out the old canes as they deteriorated, so that new canes with fresher foliage could replace them. (Canes could certainly get old and sculptural for many years, but did not last forever.) They bloom nicely and make nice blue berries.

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