Bright Winter Flowers

— Written By Al Hight and last updated by

The hybrid mahonias are one of my favorite groups of winter-flowering plants. If you like the Latin they’re listed as Mahonia x media. I have two selections in my garden – Winter Sun and Arthur Menzies. You’ll also find Underway and Charity in the trade. Arthur Menzies is a bit larger and more vigorous and blooms earlier in my garden – usually starting around Christmas. Winter Sun is more compact and starts blooming a couple of weeks later.

This group of plants sports bold, somewhat tropical looking leaves with a thick, waxy cuticle. This time of year yellow flowers emerge from the center of the plant. After the bees do their jobs of transferring the pollen around, blue fruits that resemble grapes replace the sunny flowers. Because the foliage looks a little like holly and the fruit favors a grape, some call this plant “holly grape”. That name is probably more commonly associated with the older mahonia in the trade – Mahonia bealii.


grape holly mahonia

Mahonias make a bold statement in the winter garden with their interesting texture and bright yellow flowers.

These plants perform best in our climate in partial shade with some protection from the worst winter winds. References from the Oregon and Washington often suggest that it will grow well in full sun, but our intense summer sun is a bit too much for mahonia. You’ll get maximum performance in moist, well-drained soil that has been supplemented with organic matter – about like you’d prepare for azaleas and camellias. After a year or so in the landscape, these mahonias should survive pretty well on natural rainfall.

Soft Caress Mahonia

A completely different group of mahonias has become a garden hit in the last few years. While these Mahonia eurybracteata selections sport similar yellow flowers, they are much smaller (3 to 4 feet tall and wide) and the foliage looks more like bamboo. The flowers are bit earlier making their appearance in October. The most popular of these is one from the Southern Living collection called Soft Caress and is readily available in our area.