Sandy’s Garden ... The Oregon Grape

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

Bernard McMahon was born in, or about, 1775 in Ireland.

He left his homeland at the age of 21 in 1796 to seek his fortune in America and by 1800 we know that he had settled in Philadelphia, where he was employed by William Duane, the owner of a newspaper entitled the Aurora. Apparently work in the newspaper industry was not to his liking, for within two or three years he had entered the nursery and seed business. In 1803 he published the first seed list to come off the presses in North America, a broadsheet with the rather ponderous … if accurate … title, A Catalogue of Garden Grass, Herb, Flower, Tree & Shrub-Seeds, Flower Roots, &c., in which were listed 720 species and varieties of seed. It seems to have been well-received, for just one year later he produced a 30-page catalogue of seeds of mainly native American plants.

In 1806 he published the first edition of a work which was to become a classic of American horticultural literature, The American Gardener’s Calendar, which ran eventually to eleven editions, the last appearing in 1857, many years after his death in 1816. And if you are wondering what any of this has to do with gardening in the United Kingdom, the answer is Mahonia aquifolium; the plant named after him and fortunately not called McMahonia.

Mahonia aquifolium is a species of flowering plant native to western North America from British Columbia to Northern California but planted throughout much of the country. We know how it came by the name Mahonia; and the specific part of its name … aquifolium … means ‘holly-leaved’ and refers to the spiny, holly-like foliage. Most commonly known as the Oregon grape by virtue of the dark blue berries which appear in the summer months, it is not a member of the same family of plants as true grapes, a possible confusion which is avoided in many parts of the world where its common name is the Oregon-grape, with a hyphen joining the two words. An evergreen shrub, it will typically grow to a height of about one metre … a little over 3 feet in old money … and spread to something of the order of half as much again, although it will grow larger than these dimensions in really favourable conditions. It bears clusters of yellow flowers in the spring, grape-like berries in the summer and, as one might expect of an evergreen, it is an attractive foliage plant in the autumn … and I can write ‘autumn’ rather than ‘fall’ … for mahonia (where the common name is the same as the scientific name, one writes ‘mahonia’, using italic script with an initial capital when one is using its pukka scientific name) … is now found pretty much worldwide, having proved attractive to gardeners and landscapers. Indeed, there are countries where mahonia has become an invasive exotic species, choking out native plants and thus regarded as a weed.

Numerous cultivars and hybrids have been developed, some of which have gained the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit; and Kenneth Cox and Raoul Curtis-Machin say this of mahonia in their excellent book Garden Plants for Scotland: “These are useful, tough, often statuesque shrubs with evergreen holly-like leaves held at the ends of the tall stems. The yellow fragrant flowers appear in winter and spring, followed by their apparently edible fruits, recommended by some for eating with muesli and porridge. … Mahonias like moderately fertile, humus-rich, moist but well-drained soil in full or partial shade.” So yes, they do thrive in much of Scotland, although they don’t like the Northern Isles. Our authors are a bit sniffy about the edibility of the berries: but other authorities say that the acid, slightly bitter berries are edible and are rich in vitamin C and, suitably sweetened, can be cooked into pie fillings, jellies, and jams.