‘Soft Caress’ mahonia (Mahonia eurybracteata ‘Soft Caress’, below) is marginally cold hardy for the mid Atlantic region, but this, of course, is according to standards from before our winter temperatures began to warm so drastically so quickly. I first saw ‘Soft Caress’ in a North Carolina nursery where it was being tested for vigor and hardiness, and the fern-like foliage captured my attention.
I was not so enthusiastic about its name. Men don’t do ‘Soft Caress’, or at least if they do they’re generally not enthusiastic about it. Though plant marketing people often orient their work towards female buyers, I prefer names that are more descriptive of the plant and the only thing that is “soft” about this mahonia is that the foliage is not as spiny as other mahonias. In any case, despite the name, as soon as I could I brought home a few to plant in my garden to give them a try.
For several years ‘Soft Caress’ has survived, but barely grown and not flowered at all, which is not too surprising for a marginally hardy plant that suffers some cold stress annually. Whether the extremely warm winter encouraged it, or possibly it has fully rooted enough to be able to endure winter’s cold, this year ‘Soft Caress’ has grown more vigorously and now it has begun to flower for the first time.
The lemon yellow flower spikes are similar to the other autumn flowering mahonia, ‘Winter Sun’ (above), but much smaller. ‘Soft Caress’ is a low growing evergreen shrub suitable for nearly full sun or part shade, and despite the delightful blooms the primary reason for planting it is the fern-like foliage. In prior years I’ve recommend it with a warning that it might not survive for long, but now that it has begun to perform I caution only that it will take a few years for it to become fully established before earning it’s place in the garden.
Today is the first that I’ve noticed the emerging flowers of the ‘Winter Sun’ mahonias (Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’ above) planted in areas that are sunny for most of the day. Plants in the shade are slower to set flowers, flower later and more sparsely, and grow considerably slower. But, ‘Winter Sun’ is still an excellent plant for shaded or sunny spots, and with sharply spined evergreen foliage it is highly resistant to deer. Readers have informed me that deer might nibble the flowers when they bloom in late November into December, but I haven’t seen this and I don’t spray deer repellent on mahonias that have built-in defenses.
This past year ‘Winter Sun’ began flowering in November, and held steady through December into late January when the late winter flowering Leatherleaf mahonia (Mahonia bealei, above) began to bloom (a month earlier than usual). For a week or two the blooms of the autumn and spring flowering mahonias coincided, and with witch hazels and winter jasmine there were flowers in the garden every day through January and February.
In order of preference ‘Winter sun’ is my clear favorite, but ‘Soft Caress’ is catching up quickly as it now does what it’s supposed to do. Leatherleaf and ‘Winter Sun’ have small grape-like fruits (above) that follow flowering, and most years they are barely ripe before birds pick them clean. I don’t know if ‘Soft Caress’ will have fruit, but if not the fern-like foliage and delightful blooms are quite enough to make this one a keeper.