Sandy’s Garden ... Mahonia

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

We are very fortunate to enjoy the services of a wonderful lady who trained … full-time … for five years as a horticulturist.

She led a team of gardeners for several years, set up a garden design and build business with a colleague and is now in her final year as a mature student at university, having finally been convinced that the vast majority of our fellow-citizens believe that gardening expertise should be cheap and that, short of setting up some form of retail gardening business, she will never make more than a very ordinary income from horticulture. But old habits die hard and she still loves to advise us about our garden, much of which she had a hand in designing and creating and, most importantly for growing-elderly us, to restore design and order to a garden which we struggle to manage properly.

Thus it came about that, during a recent visit, she dug out an overgrown and aged shrub which had seen better days and was fit only for the plant materials recycling skip at Kinneil Kerse. But … and there is so often a ‘but’, isn’t there? … we forgot to ask what we might plant in its place come next spring; and, rather arrogantly, we decided to make our own choice; and we had recourse to our horticultural library in quest of a shrub to suit the site, which is close to the east wall of our house and, while enjoying the morning sun, is in shade from mid-morning onwards.

Mahonia seems to fit the bill. So closely related to the genus Berberis that some authorities argue that it should be counted as a member of that genus, Mahonia is named after Bernard McMahon, an American horticulturist who is credited with having introduced the plant to gardeners. It is grown for its ornamental evergreen foliage, bedecking itself in yellow flowers from autumn right through the winter, with edible berries appearing come the spring. These berries can be eaten straight off the bush and taste rather like blackcurrants, although they are quite bitter and are more often used to make wine or to flavour jelly, although it is not a good idea to consume large quantities of the berries or of products made from then berries, for this can cause sickness, nose bleed and even kidney problems.

However, the key factors in our choice are to be found in Mahonia’s growing preferences. It is described as ‘an easy plant to grow’ which is tolerant of shade but dislikes exposure to strong winds. That suits our site. It is very hardy and will survive the coldest Scottish winter (another plus) and it is happy to be pruned, being unfussy about the degree of skill with which this is done (suits me). It provides useful ground cover (good) and is very accommodating in the type of soil in which it will thrive (excellent). All in all, Mahonia seems to meet our requirements admirably.

As it happens, the Oregon grape … its common name in the United States … was used by several of the indigenous peoples of North America to treat loss of appetite and general debility. Modern herbalists still recommend Mahonia to treat some digestive problems; and the berries are said to be a good laxative. As ever, I am not endorsing any of there claims but am content to repeat what others report: but I shall say that it would be unwise to carry out any experiments with the plant of its products. In particular, I would discourage any reader from experimenting with Mahonia-derived herbal medicines as either a gargle for sore throats or as an eye-wash. Interested readers should consult an established and reputable supplier of natural medicines. As for me, come then spring I shall add a Mahonia to my range of shrubs, chosen only for its suitability for a specific site in my garden.

Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society