by Charlene Burgi
Plants can be trendy. The latest fashions in garden magazines tout the “new” look and often move our landscapes in a direction that side-steps some awesome plants like mahonia—otherwise known as Oregon grape. Sadly, when we lose sight of these plants, the demand diminishes and nurseries stop growing or carrying them.
This forgotten plant came to my attention during the winter when the plant world in Lassen lay dormant. The intense purplish red of the holly-like leaves gleamed while other vegetation appeared as lifeless sticks or totally disappeared in the frozen tundra. My lost memory of this treasure soon regenerated, and mahonia moved to the top of my list of “must haves.”
This spring this plant further captured my attention when I visited the rancher’s home next to us. As I pulled up, brilliant yellow flowers caught my eye. Again, mahonia was the star that accented the front gate. I mentioned to our neighbors what a lovely plant they had and was taken aback when they shared they have tried to chop it down for years! It seems the leaves can be scratchy to those entering the gate since it is situated so close to the entrance of their home.
Apparently, Oregon grape is one tough plant as it continues to regenerate itself despite the abuse! The deer and rabbits have full access to browse on it, yet it remains untouched by these furry plant destroyers. Mahonia grows in sunny or shady areas, requires minimum water, and despite its common name—Oregon grape—is classified as a California native for those purists who only want native plants in their landscape.
Oregon grape comes in assorted sizes to fit any need in your garden. Mahonia repens makes for a lovely groundcover. And Mahonia nervosa is the well-behaved plant that resembles the holly-leaf fern growing to two feet and spreading to four feet with the bonus of yellow flowers followed with purple berries. The perfect dry shade garden filler! If you are looking for a large shrub, Mahonia aquifolium will grow to 12 feet and act as a great deterrent for anyone trespassing beyond perimeters of the garden.
I almost forgot to mention another great attribute of this plant—the “grape” produced from Oregon grape! Birds are attracted to the fruit, jellies can be made from it, or it can be left as ornamental. It is also resistant to diseases, which adds to its desirability for the organic gardener.
How did this plant get lost in the eyes of gardeners? I guess the same way that geraniums were forgotten before the drought in the ’70s. If this plant piques your interest, check out your local nursery to see if they still carry this winner!