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Plant of the month – Holly-leaved barberry

Mahonia aquifolium (Holly-leaved barberry/Oregon grape)

Over the years, Mahonia has unfortunately been stigmatised as a ‘car park plant’ or just generally having very little ornamental value. Most people take very little notice of it as they park their cars.

In fact, I personally quite like Mahonia for being bright, cheery, not-too-fussy plants. If you take just a second longer to look at one, you’ll realise they’re not so bad after all and could do with better showcasing!

They are very closely related to barberry or Berberis. Many scientists debate over what Mahonia should be named because the plants are often so closely related that they hybridise. One example is x Mahoberberis aquisargeantii, a hybrid of Mahonia aquifolia x Berberis sargentii.

Mahonia flowers are a bright ray in a patch of tarmac!

Mahonia aquifolium, or holly-leaved barberry, is flowering at Fulham Palace now. It is an evergreen shrub with striking bright yellow roots and stems under the bark which have been known to be used as a clothes dye. The bark is a beautiful light brown with diamond like ribbed patterns snaking up the branches to the strappy, pinnate and architectural leaves, leading to a magnificent display of many erect, bright yellow sweet-scented flowers.

There are other species of Mahonia at Fulham Palace, with slightly different growth habits, which flower just before holly-leaved barberry in autumn and winter. These species are currently bearing beautiful grape-like fruits, also known to be used for purple dye. I love how these plants provide constant interest throughout the year!

Take a moment to appreciate a Mahonia when you come across one -I hope this description alone has inspired you to take a closer look (and smell)!

by Millie Woodley, garden apprentice