Winter (and late autumn) flowering mahonias

Admittedly, I am easily entertained, and satisfied by nearly any bauble that ornaments the winter garden. I suppose there is no good purpose in planting ‘Winter Sun’, ‘Charity’, and ‘Underway’ mahonias (Mahonia x media) in the garden for winter flowers, since the three are difficult to distinguish, one from the others. Flowers and foliage are close enough that I cannot readily see the differences, but over the past ten years I’ve planted a few or several of each in case one might prove to be notably superior to the others. Thus far, all are equally superb by my reckoning, and treasured for flowering when little else is in bloom.

Winter Sun mahonia in early December

Winter Sun mahonia in early December

No matter that there seems little reason to select one rather than another (except for availability), there are excellent reasons to plant any or all of the winter flowering mahonias. I say winter, but the mahonias begin flowering in late autumn (November), with flowers persisting through frost and freezes into January. As any Virginia gardener will understand, the meteorological calendar (winter beginning December 1 and ending February 28) is more appropriate than the more traditional format of seasons, and thankfully the mahonias flower through the first, and darkest half of the winter season.

Charity mahonia in early December

Charity mahonia in early December

A time or two, ‘Winter Sun’ has flowered long into January, and on a rare occasion the late winter flowering leather leaf mahonia (Mahonia bealei) has flowered early, so that blooms overlap by a few weeks. This is probably of little consequence to any reader, but I’m delighted by such events and it’s likely that acquaintances will be bored to tears by tales of horticultural anomalies. Certainly, my wife has glazed over a time or two as I barely contain my excitement over a bee supping nectar on a mild afternoon in January.

Charity mahonia flowering in a January snow

Charity mahonia flowering in a January snow

On occasion, the mahonias’ yellow blooms are followed by tiny purple fruits, but these are not dependable since the availability of pollinating bees is not assured in cold temperatures. Though flowers are mostly immune to whatever cold a Virginia winter will bring, the extended cold of recent winters has resulted in more than a few brown leaves that must be handled very carefully. The spines are quite dangerous on green leaves, but I’ve yelped more than a few times while plucking a winter damaged leaf. This, however, should not deter you from planting any of these splendid mahonias. The winter blooms are well worth an occasional stab wound.Winter's Sun mahonia in November

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3 thoughts on “Winter (and late autumn) flowering mahonias

  1. I have a winter flowering mahonia, and it has beautiful flowers right now. However, it is getting tall and leggy. Can I cut back the height, or will that ruin the flowers for next winter? When is the best time to prune if at all?

    • The winter flowering mahonias (Winter Sun, Charity, and Underway in my garden) will grow tall and leggy if they are not pruned occasionally. The pruning is quite simple, just cut immediately above any tuft of foliage or obvious point where there have been leaves or branches. Since most foliage is on the branch tips I would advise pruning in late winter so the shrub is not bare through the winter. There should be no harm in cutting branches back severely. If branches are pruned in late winter or early spring the mahonia will send out new foliage and should flower on schedule in late autumn.

      • Thanks, Dave! I enjoy all of your posts. Anytime you want a new gardening challenge you are welcome to visit my yard in Spotsylvania County!

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