Mahonia ‘Winter Sun’
I get excited about new plants. A lot!
I’m intrigued by the latest and largest, the newest color of this or that, and any new cross or hybrid of one of my old favorites. My wife will tell you that I buy one of each, but that’s not strictly true, sometimes it’s more.
Then, after a year in the garden the newcomers are still loved, but the passion has subsided, the heat has cooled to a simmer.
My ramblings through the garden always include a stop at one of the many mahonias to check out what’s happening that day. The compact (for a mahonia) growth habit and dark green, spiny evergreen leaves are nice enough, though I’ve cursed ‘Winter Sun’ a time or two stepping on a dead leaf when barefooting through the garden.
Odder still, from a scaly terminal bud, in early fall it appears that pink tinged worms emerge from their nest (above), then elongate (below), before developing into erect racemes of fragrant yellow flowers in late November. The progression is a delight that occupies many hours when I should be raking leaves, or generally being productive doing something else.
And so, enough far-fetched tales and wide-eyed enthusiasm.
‘Winter Sun’ goes through several periods of growth mid-spring through summer, and so it grows fairly rapidly, for a shrub, that is. Other mahonias tend to flop about in this direction and that, very irregular in form, but ‘Winter Sun’ is more compact, though it grows taller than the more common Oregon Grapeholly (Mahonia aquifolium) or Leatherleaf Mahonia (Mahonia beali).
In my garden the ‘Winter Sun’ planted in a sunnier spot has grown past six feet, and presumably will require some future pruning to keep it within bounds. The fierce spines determine that this be done with a long handled lopper to avoid the inevitable puncture wounds and loss of blood.
In rather deep shade, in an area competing with shallow red maple and tulip poplar roots, ‘Winter Sun’ grows more slowly, and perhaps more compactly. In my experience the mahonias are untroubled by pests, and are particularly resistant to injury from deer.
I have witnessed small purple grape-like fruits on ‘Winter Sun’ in the nursery in late winter, but never on the plants in my garden, probably because birds pluck them when there are few other fresh fruits to choose from. In any case, the fruits on Mahonia beali and aquifolium are larger and more prominent, so if you are determined to grow a mahonia for fruit, then ‘Winter Sun’ is not your best choice. If this is your preference, I would advise growing all three, for it would be foolish to be without ‘Winter Sun’.