(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on January 25, 2009. Your comments are welcome but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
Leatherleaf is not a fabulous, showstopping shrub. Yet this same plant has special talents that keep it out of the "slate for total annihilation" category. Thinking twice about leatherleaf mahonia is a good exercise in assessing a plant's suitability in your particular landscape situation.
Hardy, adaptable, hollylike broadleaf evergreen
Mahonia bealei (also called leatherleaf mahonia or Beale's barberry) is originally from China but has been available to Western gardeners for generations. It's a medium sized bush that reminds you of holly but with compound leaves borne on upright stems. A coarse textured flowering shrub, it does best in a somewhat shaded location. Mature height for leatherleaf is in the range of 8 to 12 feet. Leatherleaf mahonia is not picky about soil type, rarely suffers from insect pests, and is said to be hardy in zones 6 through 9.
Winter is when leatherleaf mahonia catches your eye. Notice the new year's growth as cold weather settles in, when bright-yellowish green buds swell from the tips of the stems as shown above. Each growth point erupts into a cluster of one to two dozen spires of yellow flowers, tiny bright bells above the dark green foliage. If you're lucky and have a warm spell in midwinter, be sure to step closer and enjoy your first scent of spring. You might even see a brave bee working the flowers on an early nectar gathering mission. Each flower produces a small oval, purple fruit. The strings of purple fruits are reminiscent of grape clusters; some Mahonias have "grape" incorporated in the common name. Birds enjoy those fruits.
Naturalized, not native, in North America
Leatherleaf mahonia was brought to Europe from its home in China in the 1800s. This shrub's ability to tolerate many sites, and the fact that birds eat the berries, has allowed leatherleaf mahonia to naturalize in parts of the United States. The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service PLANTS database shows this species populating most of the southeastern states. In fact, some states have listed leatherleaf mahonia as an invasive plant or noxious weed, making it ill advised or illegal to plant leatherleaf in those areas. Invasive.org currently shows this Mahonia on prohibited plant lists in Alabama, Georgia, Michigan, South Carolina, and Tennessee.
In your landscape?
Since this barberry can self sow, you may find yourself gifted with a seedling through natural processes. It's also available commercially. Should you use leatherleaf mahonia in your landscape? In areas where this plant has not (yet) been found to be invasive, you might want to use this shrub for its unique look. A number of Dave's Gardeners have given it favorable marks in PlantFiles. Keep these points in mind:
It's a very stiff prickly bush. That may make it a good choice for a barrier or security planting, as a tough, natural deterrent to passersby or lingerers. Site it carefully. At the least, you'll want to allow ample distance between your leatherleaf and your sidewalks or deck. It can be maintained easily to a five or six foot width. This bush is NOT to be brushed up against.
It's a slow narrow grower, tending to few upright stems. This barberry won't spread widely; left alone, it will have a few stems, each bearing a top hat of large compound leaves. For more branches, and thus most blooms, judiciously prune one or more stems. New growth will emerge just below the cut. Leatherleaf's slow growth rate makes it very easy to maintain at a desired size.
It can self sow. Although only a few states have listed it as invasive or noxious, one would think there is potential for leatherleaf mahonia to expand its range. A Dave's Garden user in South Carolina has commented negatively in PlantFiles, attesting to leatherleaf's persistence in that region. I seriously doubt the Plant Police will raid your yard, but surely we should heed the recommendations of those who study noxious plants as a career and comply with their statutes.
In final analysis, leatherleaf doesn't seem to be such a bad guy in many places, and can be useful and attractive in its own way. But the world of cultivated and native shrubs is big. Mahonia aquifolium, Oregon grape holly, is a native American relative of leatherleaf.
Why not read Winter Blooming Shrubs: The Short List by Jacqueline Cross for ornamental alternatives to leatherleaf? The Garden In Winter by Larry Rettig suggests many other ideas for winter interest. Or refer to What to Feed Backyard Birds by Marna Towne, so you'll know how to keep the birds happy in winter without leatherleaf Mahonia. I think that about covers the second (and third and fourth...) thoughts you might have about leatherleaf mahonia. With these linked resources, and more available to you in Dave's Garden, you should be able to resolve second thoughts on just about anything in your garden.
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Resources and credits
Invasive.org- A helpful website for researching possible invasive plants in North America
USDA NRCS Plants Database- A helpful site for researching plant species in North America
Duke University page about leatherleaf mahonia
Klingaman, Gerald, extension agent retired, University of Arkansas Plant of the Week article, 2004
Virtual Plant Tags- link to a page on leatherleaf mahonia, citing Dirr's observations
All photos taken by and property of the author.
*If possible, feel free to dmail me and describe what its like to NOT be excited about plants.