November 10th, 2006
Mahonia bealei

Record-tying high of 91 degrees today as I try to get more fall planting done.

The last time we were walking around Knutsford I noticed an intriguing tree in bloom in the tiny front gardens of one of the row houses. I recognized it as a mahonia and told AJM, “We can grow those in Texas.”

Well, sort of. Maybe we saw M. fortunei (Chinese mahonia) in England which was introduced there from China by Robert Fortune in 1846. The University of Arkansas confuses the matter–well confuses me. Mahonia swazeyi (Texas barberry) and Mahonia trifoliata (agarita) are both native to Texas. However, the mahonia I brought home from Barton Springs Nursery was M. bealei (leatherleaf mahonia). I purchased a gallon-sized plant for $6.79. I was initially attracted to the yellow flowers because yellow is a color lacking in my garden and I really need something to cheer up all the blues. The flowers are said to be fragrant. I also like its leathery, holly-shaped leaves–a definite bluish cast there. And I can’t resist plants that hint of an intelligent designer with a Seussian sense of humor. Best of all leatherleaf mahonia is a shade plant. Sounds like the perfect match for my yard.

I’m in awe of the tales Susan Harris tells at Takoma Gardener of moving plants hither and thither. I don’t think of myself as a weakling but it took me most of the day to plant my one gallon leatherleaf mahonia. First I had to clear a spot in the north border to dig the hole. There’s a lot of bindweed, smilax, and even some poison ivy in that spot. Then I had to decide exactly where I wanted to plant it. I have to be able to see it from the kitchen and bathroom windows. And since it’s where the path turns the corner, it should look good from both approaches. Finally, it has to be spaced well from the existing larger plants in the area.

Digging the hole took most of the time (about 2 hours). Luckily there weren’t as many rocks as in other spots of the yard. Nor as many tree roots as I was expecting. The advice these days is to dig the hole wide but not deep. There is a lot of mucky clay here so I dug the hole about 24 inches wide and 15 inches deep.

Because the drought has left the ground dry far below the surface I filled the hole with water twice. The first time it drained well in about 5 to 8 minutes. The second time it didn’t. It took almost 30 minutes to drain. I went to lunch to allow the water to soak in.

Although current wisdom says to refill the hole with native dirt, my native dirt was almost pure clay. So I spent some time sifting the compost pile and refilled the hole with a mix of the more loamy dirt and compost. I watered in the plant and then mulched it with some Texas native hardwood mulch.

Now for that glass of wine.

Garden History

2006-11-10. Planted.
2007-01-18. First flower. (May have flowered earlier during the ice storm but this is the first day I see it.)
2008-01-06. First flower.
Suddenly, after eleven years in the garden, this plant (which had gotten quite large over the winter) died. I think it’s because the cedar elm that was shading it is gone and now it’s getting too much sun. I was really surprised to see it turn brown and die. I’ll be digging it up sometime this month before the large brush collection.

by M Sinclair Stevens

3 Responses to post “Mahonia bealei”

  1. From Annie in Austin:

    Digging in the Illinois prairie was also quite different from digging in Austin! Your planting adventure took almost as long as Henry Mitchell’s meandering tomato day – but I think you’ll like the Mahonia. We had one at the last house, and the flowers, berries and leaf shapes were all attractive. Ours had been planted pretty far away from the house & deck, [to get some shade on it in the middle of the day], and I didn’t notice any fragrance.


  2. From M2 (Austin):

    My mother once told me to “dig up that bush and drag it to the curb.” It took me hours. At least a quarter of an hour was dragging it to the curb with thirty pounds of clay (we called it “gumbo” in coastal East Texas) the twenty feet to the street. My mother was appalled and very apologetic when she found out what her casual command had launched.

    She had me watch a movie (I believe it was “The Green Man”?) which entailed digging up a body half a dozen times. The body was buried six feet down, and each time they dug it up, it was an hour’s work, and there was a huge pile of dirt next to the hole. Dirt! I’ve never lived anywhere that had dirt that actually extended into the ground. It’s always been more of a garnish.

    PS, I liked “hint of an intelligent designer with a Seussian sense of humor”!

    Dirt as a garnish, indeed! Those Austinites west of MoPac will appreciate that line. I always laugh at any movie where the about-to-be-killed person is made to dig his own grave–especially when they are shown a couple of hours later with shoulders below ground level. The deepest I can dig down is about a foot so I usually also build up beds about a foot in order to make the requisite two feet. — mss

  3. From Kathy (New York):

    I certainly have had similar experiences as a gardener. And don’t forget, Susan Harris paid someone this spring to move a pile of mulch for/with her.