Grape Holly Plant Care – How And Where To Plant Oregon Grape Hollies And Creeping Mahonia

Grape Holly Plant Care – How And Where To Plant Oregon Grape Hollies And Creeping Mahonia

By: Jackie Carroll

Growing a grape holly plant in the landscape will offer unique interest to the area. Not only easy to grow and care for, but these lovely plants also offer an abundance of food to wildlife through their fall berries. These plants will also add year-round interest through their attractive foliage color and texture.

Grape Holly Plant Info

Oregon grape holly (Mahonia aquifolium) is a handsome, 3- to 6-foot (1 to 2 m.) ornamental shrub that can play a number of roles in the garden. The shrub’s appearance changes with the seasons. In spring, the branches bear long, hanging clusters of lightly fragrant, yellow flowers which give way to dark, blue berries in summer. New spring foliage is bronze in color, turning green as it matures. In fall, the leaves take on a pleasing, purplish cast.

Another grape holly plant, creeping Mahonia (M. repens) makes an excellent ground cover. With foliage, flowers, and berries similar to the Oregon grape holly shrub, creeping grape holly has all the features of the taller form in a plant that grows only 9 to 15 inches (23 to 45.5 cm.) tall. The plants spread by means of underground rhizomes, and seedlings often emerge under the plant where berries fall to the ground.

Although the berries are too sour to suit human taste buds, they are safe to eat and can be used in jellies and jams. Birds love them and disburse the seeds as they feed.

Where to Plant Oregon Grape Hollies

Plant grape hollies in a partially shaded area with moist, neutral to slightly acidic, well-draining soil. M. aquifolium makes an excellent specimen or foundation plant and also looks good in shrub groupings or borders. When closely planted, the prickly, holly-like foliage forms a barrier that few animals will try to penetrate.

M. repens likes full sun in cool climates and afternoon shade where summers are hot. Plant creeping Mahonia as a ground cover in a variety of situations. It serves to stabilize soil on slopes and hillsides, and it is deer resistant, making it a good choice for woodland areas.

Caring for Grape Holly Plant

Both Oregon grape holly and creeping Mahonia is easy to care for. The plants are drought tolerant and only need watering during extended dry spells. A layer of organic mulch around the plants will help the soil retain moisture and reduce competition from weeds.

Prune the plants and remove suckers and seedlings as necessary to restrict them to the desired areas. Mahonias don’t require regular fertilization, but they may benefit from a layer of compost over the root zone in spring.

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Common NameOregon grape, Japanese Mahonia, mountain grape, holly-leaved Barberry
Scientific NameMahonia aquifolium, M. japonica
Plant FamilyBerberidaceae
OriginNorth America and Asia
HeightTo 3.5m or 4m, depending on type
LightPartial shade to shade
TemperatureMost types will tolerate down to -15°C
SoilAny moist but well-drained soil
FertiliserLow requirement for fertiliser
PropagationSeed, semi-hardwood or tip cuttings and leaf bud cuttings
PestsRusts and mildews
See beautiful Mahonia varieties here!

Mahonias are evergreen shrubs with leathery and often spiny, dark green leaves. In the autumn and winter they produce long-stalked clusters of slightly scented yellow flowers that are followed by dark purplish berries.

The plant’s common name is Oregon grape, reflecting the passing similarity of the berries to bunches of black grapes and its adoption as the state flower of Oregon in 1899.

Mahonias have great qualities for the garden, particularly in difficult shaded locations, and they provide variety and interest in the winter when many other shrubs are bare or dormant. The more common varieties grow to a height of 4m and spread to approximately 3m, but there are smaller types available, including a few that can be used as an open woodland ground cover.

While only a few are commonly grown as garden shrubs, there are approximately 70 species in the plant’s natural range of Central America, North America and Asia, mostly growing in woodlands or woodland edge conditions.

This article provides information on the requirements of Mahonias and gives tips on caring for them in the garden.

Think Twice about Leatherleaf Mahonia

When one gets excited about plants*, its easy to be impulsive. Unfortunately, if you don't think twice before planting certain specimens, you may have second thoughts afterward. Leatherleaf mahonia (Mahonia bealei), also known as Beale's barberry, is a second thought kind of plant.

(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 flowering

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. 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 Win ter 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. 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

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.

Great Plant Pick: Mahonia repens, creeping Oregon grape

This tough mahonia has tight clusters of canary-yellow flowers in early spring.

  • by Richie Steffen
  • Friday, March 6, 2020 1:30am
  • Life

What: Spiny leaves — reminiscent of holly foliage — of blue to deep green adorn this stoloniferous shrublet. Mahonia repens, also known as creeping Oregon grape or creeping hollygrape, grows to about 12 inches tall and spreads slowly to form a tight groundcover. In late winter to early spring, tight clusters of bright canary yellow flowers burst forth to welcome garden pollinators. By late summer to early fall, dark blue-purple berries may form and, while sour, are edible after one or two heavy frosts. The berries can be made into jelly when ripe. The evergreen foliage may turn purplish in winter.

Where: This low-growing mahonia is tough. It will grow well in full sun to deep shade. In full sun, the foliage will turn an attractive plum color. It prefers a moist to well-drained soil, but will tolerate sand and clay.

Size: The spreading shrub grows to be 1 foot tall and 8 feet wide when mature.

Care: Once established, creeping Oregon grape is drought tolerant, although plants in full sun can yellow if kept excessively dry. Occasional watering during dry weather will help plants in sun to maintain a rich green foliage color. Little pruning is necessary other than the removal of dead or broken limbs.

— Richie Steffen, Great Plant Picks


Colorado Hardy Plants are just that… hardy! We have sought out plant varieties that provide low maintenance, use little or no water once established, and are simply hardy enough to grow where others don’t.

We grow and ship our plants in 5″ or quart-size (in certain varieties) plastic containers. Knowing that the root system is the most important part of the plant we guarantee. our plants to have a large root system that fills the container.

CHP is a small family operation! We propagate, pot, water, prune, and personally package the plants you order from us. Most of our plants are grown from cuttings taken from the plants or seeds collected nearby the nursery at an elevation of 6300 ft. Our weather is extreme with temps below 0 are common in the winter and intense sunlight all summer long. We don’t grow plants in heated greenhouses, they have to be able to survive the elements!

Please note that deciduous plants ordered in the winter months and early spring will have been pruned a minimum of 30% compared to photos and may have no leaves

Plant Library

Other Names: Oregon Grape Holly

A very interesting mounded shrub with leathery, sharp holly-shaped leaves showy yellow flowers in spring and very attractive purple grape-like fruit in late summer somewhat fussy, needs moist acid soils, some shade and protection from winter winds

Oregon Grape is primarily grown for its highly ornamental fruit. It features an abundance of magnificent blue berries from mid summer to early fall. It features showy racemes of fragrant yellow flowers hanging below the branches in early spring. It has dark green foliage which emerges burgundy in spring. The spiny pinnately compound leaves turn an outstanding coppery-bronze in the fall.

Oregon Grape is a dense multi-stemmed evergreen shrub with a ground-hugging habit of growth. Its relatively fine texture sets it apart from other landscape plants with less refined foliage.

This shrub will require occasional maintenance and upkeep, and can be pruned at anytime. Deer don't particularly care for this plant and will usually leave it alone in favor of tastier treats. Gardeners should be aware of the following characteristic(s) that may warrant special consideration

Oregon Grape is recommended for the following landscape applications

  • General Garden Use
  • Naturalizing And Woodland Gardens

Oregon Grape will grow to be about 6 feet tall at maturity, with a spread of 5 feet. It tends to fill out right to the ground and therefore doesn't necessarily require facer plants in front, and is suitable for planting under power lines. It grows at a slow rate, and under ideal conditions can be expected to live for approximately 30 years.

This shrub performs well in both full sun and full shade. It is very adaptable to both dry and moist locations, and should do just fine under average home landscape conditions. It is not particular as to soil type, but has a definite preference for acidic soils. It is somewhat tolerant of urban pollution, and will benefit from being planted in a relatively sheltered location. Consider applying a thick mulch around the root zone in winter to protect it in exposed locations or colder microclimates. This species is native to parts of North America.

A Graceful Silhouette

Above: Mahonia confusa at Oxford Botanic Garden, hardy in USDA zones 6 to 9.

And there is another variety, for people who can’t get along with spines, the winsome Mahonia confusa, which only grows to a height of about 5 foot. Pruned for height, with side shoots removed, it is genuinely pretty in a shady corner with poor soil, although you might want to place it where you can really see it.

See more growing tips in Mahonia: A Field Guide to Planting, Care & Design in our curated guides to Shrubs 101. Learn more about this favorite winter bloomer:

Watch the video: GARDEN TOUR: Family Friendly Backyard Landscaping Ideas. Linda Vater