There are few types of trees, shrubs or perennials that bloom in the winter months when most plants are in their dormant phase. While there are some that provide berries or bark texture for winter interest, few actually flower during these cold months of the season. One shrub that does flower during these months is Mahonia x media.
There are several different varieties of Mahonia which range from large shrubs to creeping groundcovers. This particular variety is actually a hybrid (cross) between two different species M. lomarifolia and M. japonica. There are several cultivars that exist and ‘Winter Sun’ is amongst my favorite. While there is a western US native variety (Mahonia aquifolia), this one has its native roots in Asia. Mahonia was named in honor of Philadelphia horticulturist, Bernard McMahon, who is credited with introducing the plant from his findings during the Lewis and Clark expeditions. This evergreen shrub reaches a height between 8-15 feet and grows well in zones 6-8. It has dark green leathery leaves that are toothed and quite sharp. Mahonia x media flowers are borne on long racemes and are bright yellow in color, a cheerful addition to the winter landscape. Once done flowering, blue berries form adding more appeal to its evergreen look in the spring months.
I really like this shrub as its low maintenance once established and thrives in part to full shade. It works well in shady corners and is best planted in partial shade with another nearby as the flower and berry set is increased. They do spread by suckering so be careful and remove any suckers that move into areas where you don’t want more to establish. It also acts as a good screen where needed and is great at keeping people out of any area where they are planted and they can cut or scrape you with ease if brushed up against. Mahonia has several tolerances worth noting such as pollution and drought resistance which makes it a good choice for an urban garden.
We have a stand of Mahonia x media that are about to go into full bloom in the rear of our Cooper Street Community Garden located at 34 Cooper Street between Broadway and Bushwick avenue in Brooklyn.