The Virtues Of Charity

Imagine Puget Sound in winter. Dark in the morning. Dark in the afternoon. And it’s mostly dreary in between. As a saving grace, our relatively moderate winter temperatures offer a hospitable climate for a dazzling array of winter-blooming shrubs. And there is no better winter-blooming shrub for greater Pugetopolis than Mahonia x media ‘Charity’. What we have here, ladies and gents, is a plant whose virtues are so endless that it’s nearly impossible to ascertain where to begin the extolling. Let’s start with lush, bold, evergreen foliage that flushes in bundles of red and plum in the spring. The leaves eventually grow to more than 18″ in length, armed with prickly 2″ leaflets pinnately arranged along a central rachis.

Admittedly, all Mahonias suffer the Achilles heel of those spiny little leaves, which require stout gloves and boots for cleanup. Eye protection is also recommended. Folks, I am not a fan of prickly things. For instance, barberries, the botanical kissing-cousins of Mahonias, are banned from my garden because their benefits do not offset the pain endured by ham-fisted, lumbering oafs like myself when maintaining them. But the redeeming qualities of this particular shrub far outweigh the trauma of an occasional puncture wound.

From November to March, foot-long stacks of pea-sized, honey-scented flowers of a cheerful canary-yellow hue light up even the most dismal winter day. And the blossoms aren’t just glorious from a human perspective, as they are loaded with nectar which attracts bees, hummingbirds, and a host of other small birds in the same way that I am lured by the sound of a cork popping out of a bottle.

The flowers tolerate a considerable amount of frost, closing during extended frigid spells and reopening after the thermometer climbs a bit. The blossoms are followed by shiny, currant-sized, blue berries lightly dusted with a waxy, whitish coating and hanging in grape-like bunches from mid-summer through fall. These are greedily gobbled by robins, cedar waxwings, and a host of their avian accomplices. Although I have yet to try them personally, the berries are reputed to be edible by humans as well.

My understanding is that they are too seedy, mealy, and bitter/acidic for eating out of hand, (which explains why I haven’t tried them), but the Euell-Gibbons-(look him up, kids)-back-to-nature-foraging folks claim they are useful for preserves and pies, where sugar hides a lot of sins. Better berry crops are achieved when plants are grouped or planted with other species of Mahonia.

Slow growing to 10 feet or so after ten years, the shrub has an upright, vase-shaped form which works well as focal point or in a mixed border. While tolerant of reasonably draining, heavier soils, it’s happiest in well-drained, slightly acid soils. Moist soils are preferred, but plants in shaded areas are drought tolerant when established. Plants in full sun will need average garden water.

The furrowed, fissured bark wraps around yellow interior wood present in all species of Mahonia, which have been utilized for dyeing fabric and leather by many cultures around the globe. Eminently prunable, they can become a bit leggy over time, which can be remedied by an annual tidying or an occasional brutally hard pruning if “legginess” offends you.

These are tough shrubs. I dug mine up once for a week-long starring role in the 2007 NW Flower and Garden Show, and although it suffered a bit upon its return to our garden in sub-freezing temperatures, it eventually recovered and is now encroaching upon the gutters of my house. They do need a little room, but no more than the average large shrub or small tree.

Beyond its attributes in the garden, ‘Charity’ and fellow members of the genus come with a rather fascinating back story. The genus Mahonia was named in 1818 in honor of Bernard McMahon, an Irish nurseryman who immigrated to Philadelphia in the late 1700s.

McMahon was the author of The American Gardener’s Calendar, the most comprehensive gardening guide of its time, and he was also the first nurseryman in America to publish a seed catalog. He opened his Philadelphia nursery and seed house in 1802, and although three decades his junior, became one Thomas Jefferson’s garden mentors.

In 1806  Jefferson chose him as one of two nurserymen to receive and propagate the seeds and plants collected by Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery, including specimens of Mahonia aquifolium and M. nervosa, the first Mahonias introduced to the West. The Corps’ expedition was in part planned from McMahon’s Philadelphia home, and in 1808 McMahon purchased 20 acres outside of town which he named Upsal. The family nursery and botanical garden were a hotbed of horticultural and botanical interest and frequented by all the garden glitterati of the day. McMahon passed away at his beloved Upsal in 1816 at the young age of 41, and the genus was named in 1816 by frequent house guest Thomas Nuttall in homage to his friend and colleague.

The story behind ‘Charity’ is also filled with intrigue. ‘Charity’ is a hybrid of M. japonica and M. lomariiflia which showed up around 1950 or ’51 in a shipment of 100 M. japonica seedlings from Slieve Donnard Nursery of Northern Ireland. Six of those seedlings eventually found their way to the Savill Garden near Windsor, and several years later when they eventually flowered it was obvious that one plant was markedly different from the others. The new specimen was subsequently identified as a naturally occurring cross between the two species, stock plants of which were grown in close proximity at the nursery.

In a classic case of Mother Nature thumbing her nose at plant propagators, the owners of the company had been trying to produce a garden-worthy hybrid themselves for years. M. japonica is native to Taiwan, and was introduced to Western horticulture from Japan in the mid-19th century. It’s a stocky and fully clothed shrub which grows slowly to 6 feet or so over 10 years. The flowers, which are powerfully fragrant on a warm day, appear in late winter and early spring followed by the standard Mahonia berries. It has a good presence in the garden is well worth growing on its own. Our specimen is located in full sun and is covered in bees every spring.

M. lomariiflia is native to Sichuan, Yunnan, northern Burma, and Taiwan. It is much more tender than M. japonica and prefers the shelter of a south or west-facing wall. Gaunt and upright, it is capable of reaching heights of over twenty feet in its native haunts. Our specimen is mired in our woodland, where it is slowly being overgrown by a small copse of Madrona seedlings which I could not bear to edit. Now the seedlings are trees…hey, it happens to smarty-pants designers too, folks!

Although Charity is the most commonly seen cultivar, other cultivars of M. x media are available if you are willing to do a bit of plant hunting, including a few I’d love to try if only we had more land. ‘Winter Sun’ is slightly smaller and a bit more fragrant than ‘Charity’, and ‘Lionel Fortescue’ flowers a bit earlier. ‘Buckland’ and ‘Underway’ are also first-rate garden plants. There are even two sister seedlings to ‘Charity’ named ‘Hope’ and ‘Faith’ if you are one of those obsessive/compulsive types who simply has to collect  the whole set.

And why not collect the whole set? With four seasons of interest in a fairly compact package, they’re  simultaneously opulent and utilitarian, a veritable gold-plated, diamond-encrusted, Swiss Army knife of a shrub.

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