Bittersweet blessings

Mahonia CharityMahonia Charity
Mahonia Charity
Many years ago, I read of a shrub whose flowers smell of lily of the valley and whose berries can be made into jam.

I have to admit that I’d never thought of a mahonia in that way, but it’s true. The shrubs, named after Irish nurseryman Bernard McMahon, who settled in Philadelphia in the 18th-century, smell great and, if you don’t mind a bit of bitterness, their dark fruits can be made into a preserve.

So that’s two good reasons to grow at least one of the 70-or-so plants which go to make up this interesting and very useful family of mainly upright, bushy and evergreen shrubs.

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They’re also pretty tough. This winter has been particularly severe on many hardy plants, but the majority of mahonias have withstood the ice and snow and are back doing what they do best – growing.

Mahonia Japonica and M ‘Charity’ are two of the most popular. The former usually grows to no more than six or seven feet tall and perhaps a bit more in width, although if it’s allowed to go unchecked, the latter will eventually grow 15ft tall and 12ft wide. Nevertheless, ‘Charity’ is an eye-catching shrub.

From late autumn right through to the following spring it has long, fragrant spikes of yellow flowers. For the rest of the year it’s clothed in toothed, dark-green leaves. If both sound too big, there’s always Mahonia Aquifolium, which is one of the smaller varieties, reaches around three feet.

Mahonias like a well-drained, rich soil and a bit of shade. They grow well in light woodland.

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Mahonia are best left unpruned but there are times when it can’t be avoided. All pruning is best done in late summer, removing dead and damaged branches and foliage, and cutting to shape.

If you have an established mahonia that seems bare at the bottom and has long bare branches, pruning them can encourage new growth.

Remove some branches completely to allow light into the centre of the plant. Long, bare branches can be cut back to about a foot to persuade new foliage to sprout.

As for the berries, they are very bitter 
but can be turned into jam or jelly. Or, better still, leave them for the birds.

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