Berberis spp. (syn. Mahonia)
When you’re looking for foundation shrubs for your yard, you might choose one that is evergreen, another that has great spring flowers, and a third that will wow you with its fall colors.
Or, you can grow Oregon grape instead, and get all three of these features in one attractive shrub!
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Oh yes, there are many other uses for mahonias besides foundation plantings – especially since there are many different species of these plants, with different growth habits.
Clearly these shrubs have a lot going for them – and I’ve only scratched the surface of their merits!
If you’ve already decided that Oregon grape is on your shrub “shortlist,” I bet you’re wondering how to best care for these plants.
Sun exposure, water needs, pruning – yes, we’ll cover it all, and then some.
Keep reading to find out more!
What Is Oregon Grape?
Oregon grapes are woody shrubs, many of them evergreen or semi-evergreen. Some are low-growing ground covers, while others are upright shrubs reaching up to 15 feet tall and 12 feet wide.
These plants are known for their alternate, compound leaves which bring color and texture to the landscape.
Many species have leaflets that resemble holly, with sharp teeth that may even be spiky.
New growth on these plants is reddish, maturing to green, dark green, or bluish-green, and turning beautiful shades of red, yellow, or purple in autumn.
Flowers appear in big clusters. These are bright yellow and very fragrant.
The berries of Oregon grape are edible, and they can be blue, black, or red, depending on the species.
Many of these species bear fruits that have a similar appearance to grapes, which explains their common name.
Cultivation and History
Native to Asia and North America, Oregon grapes are members of the Berberidaceae family, related to such plants as barberries, blue cohosh (Caulophyllum spp.), mayapples (Podophyllum spp.), and twinleaf (Jeffersonia spp.).
Oregon grape species – also known as “grape holly” – were formerly classified within the Mahonia genus, but are now classified in the genus Berberis by many, but not all taxonomists. Some still classify them as Mahonia, which is considered a synonym.
(Berberis, by the way, means “barberry” and comes from Arabic.)
Mahonia species have a long history of use by humans. In North America, Indigenous peoples such as the Cheyenne and Blackfoot used these plants for food, dye, and medicinal purposes.
The roots and stems of Berberis species contain berberine, which has medicinal properties and is used in herbal medicine for the treatment of small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), among other medical conditions.
These shrubs also make great dye plants, with roots, stems, and bark used to produce yellow dyes, and berries used for bluish-purple dyes.
And the berries remain a favorite among current-day foragers, providing excellent fruit for the making of jams and jellies.
Check the growing zone for your selected species or cultivar before planting – depending on which you choose, mahonias can be grown in USDA Hardiness Zones 4b to 10b.
Oregon Grape Propagation
When propagating mahonias, you’ll need to check on particular details for the type you’re growing, since not all species are propagated in the same way.
For B. aquifolium, which is the type you are most likely to grow if you purchase a specimen from a garden nursery, your options are to propagate via cuttings or seeds.
Here’s how to propagate B. aquifolium:
Mahonias can be grown from seed fairly easily. There are many different methods for propagating in this way – I’m going to describe the simplest one.
If you’ve obtained seeds by collecting fresh fruit, first remove the pulp from the seeds and ensure that the seed is clean before sowing it. Otherwise, mold can be an issue.
These seeds can be sown in fall, just as you would pre-seed your veggie garden. They can also be sown in spring, but require a three-month period of cold stratification in order to germinate.
Before sowing in place, clear the growing area of any weeds or other vegetation.
Consider mixing some compost into your soil, which will increase organic matter and help with water retention.
Sow seeds half an inch deep and three to six feet apart. Cover with an inch of mulch and keep the growing area moist while awaiting germination.
Once seedlings germinate, keep the soil moist, irrigating if needed in the absence of rainfall.
When these seedlings are several inches tall you can begin to transition to less irrigation.
Take cuttings from new, softwood growth in late spring to early summer using sterilized garden pruners.
Start more cuttings than you need, as not all will root successfully.
Cuttings should have two to three pairs of leaflets each. Cut off the bottom pair of leaflets entirely, and cut the other leaflets in half.
Next, take the blade of your garden pruners and score the stem close to the cut end without cutting all the way through.
Prepare a mixture of two parts sand and one part vermiculite, and fill nursery pots with this growing medium. Pots ranging from four inches to one gallon in size are good picks for this project.
Dip the ends of the cuttings into a rooting hormone, and insert them into the growing medium.
Reuse a transparent plastic cup or a resealable plastic bag to create a humidity dome over the pot.
Alternatively, you can purchase four-inch nursery pots with individual humidity domes from the MIXC Store via Amazon.
4” Round Nursery Pots with Humidity Domes Pack of 30
Place the nursery pots in filtered sunlight, and keep the growing medium moist but not soggy.
These cuttings will take about eight weeks or so to root.
Transplant the rooted cuttings in the ground in early fall so they have time to adjust before the ground freezes.
Once you have a potted plant that you have grown yourself or purchased from a nursery, you can either plant it in the ground or – in some situations – grow it in a decorative container.
Learn more about growing shrubs in containers with our article.
B. aquifolium will require three to six feet of space. If you’re growing another species, check its mature spread to determine how much room it will need.
If you haven’t already done so, you might want to sketch out your landscaping design in a gardening notebook before you get started.
Clear the planting area of weeds and other vegetation before getting started, then dig a hole that is a couple of inches deeper and twice as wide as your plant’s nursery pot.
Mix some finished compost into the removed soil – it will help with water retention and act as an organic fertilizer.
Tilt the shrub at an angle and squeeze the pot to loosen the roots, then ease the shrub out of the pot.
If the plant has become rootbound, rub the tangled roots until they have been loosened. Rootbound or not, try to loosen the edges of the root ball so that the plant experiences less transplant shock.
Situate the root ball in the hole, positioning it so that the crown of the plant is level with the surface of the soil. To do this, you may need to dig the hole slightly deeper, or add some of the removed soil back into the hole under the root ball.
Once the shrub is positioned well, backfill with soil and compost. Then water in the shrub, let the water settle, and water a second time.
Depending on your climate, you may need to water daily, especially if rain is lacking and conditions are hot.
Irrigate if needed over the next couple of months, then gradually reduce watering.
How to Grow Oregon Grape Holly
As you’ll learn later in the article, there are many different types of Oregon grape to choose from.
In the home landscape, the most common species used is B. aquifolium, so we’ll cover growing requirements for that species here.
B. aquifolium can grow in full sun to part shade, but it will need more water when grown in more direct sunlight.
These shrubs are fairly drought tolerant, able to survive with just seven inches of water per year in some locations, but they will also grow in areas that receive over 150 inches of precipitation a year.
That means this shrub has some flexibility in how much water it needs and is able to tolerate once established.
In arid locations, established plants should be watered about once a month for best results, depending on weather conditions.
And when it comes to soil, well-drained loam is best for this shrub.
Not sure what type of soil you have? Read our article about testing your soil to find out!
- Grow in full sun to part shade.
- Provide more water for specimens grown in full sun.
- Locate in well-drained, loamy soils.
Pruning and Maintenance
There’s typically no need to prune Oregon grapes, but some gardeners like to rejuvenate plants by cutting back old or damaged stems to the ground. Plan to cut back only one-quarter of the plant’s stems per year, and do this task in late winter.
Read our article on pruning for further guidance.
If your specimen is the type that produces suckers, they can be cut back to the ground as needed or dug up to use as divisions for replanting.
Fertilizer for these plants will depend on which species you grow and which region you live in.
Compost serves as an excellent all-purpose fertilizer. It can be worked into the soil before planting, or added as a top dressing during the growing season.
Placing mulch around mahonias will help with water retention and keeping plants cooler during the summer months.
If you’re not sure what type of mulch to use, read our article to find the perfect mulch solution for your landscaping needs!
Oregon Grape Species and Cultivars to Select
There are many different species and cultivars of Oregon grape to consider using in your landscaping, depending on your preferences and location.
Note that some types of Berberis are prone to becoming invasive, such as B. bealei, also known as leatherleaf mahonia.
For the most positive ecological impact and easier maintenance, choose one of these shrubs that’s native to your region. Let’s look at some options:
Native to California, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington, as well as British Columbia, tall Oregon grape (B. aquifolium) grows in a wide range of different habitats across elevations as low as 35 feet to heights over 9,000 feet.
This species reaches five to eight feet tall and three to six feet wide.
Also known as Mahonia aquifolium and “holly-leaved barberry,” this species has glossy leaves and is evergreen to semi-evergreen.
Plant tall Oregon grape in USDA Hardiness Zones 5 to 9, in full sun to part shade.
Once established, B. aquifolium has low water needs and is fairly drought tolerant. But as previously mentioned, it will need more moisture when grown in more direct sun.
Holly-leaved barberry is great for borders, hedgerows, or screens.
Native to the Pacific Northwest region of the US and designated as the state flower of Oregon, this shrub can become invasive in other areas so you may want to check with your local county extension before growing it.
Purchase your own tall Oregon grape from Fast Growing Trees.
Want to try growing it from seed?
You can purchase B. aquifolium in packs of 10 seeds from the Palm Beach Medicinal Herbs Store via Amazon.
In addition to the species, there are cultivars of B. aquifolium as well.
A dwarf variety, ‘Compacta’ reaches only two feet tall and forms a ground cover.
B. Aquifolium ‘Compacta’
You’ll find B. aquifolium, ‘Compacta’ available for purchase from Nature Hills.
Another cultivar, ‘Orange Flame’ is named for its new leaves, which emerge in a coppery orange hue.
Known as “Fremont’s mahonia,” “Fremont’s barberry,” “desert Oregon grape,” or “Utah holly,” B. fremontii is native to the southwestern US and northwestern Mexico.
Utah holly reaches up to 15 feet tall and six feet wide, and has a sprawling growth habit.
Its evergreen leaves are bluish-green, holly-like, and have sharp spines. Its flowers are yellow and its fruits are red, orange, or yellow.
Grow Utah holly in full sun in dry, well-drained, rocky soils.
Although it will require frequent watering at first, this plant is very drought tolerant and is considered xeric once established.
This species is great for fall color – its foliage turns purple in autumn.
Utah holly can be grown in USDA Hardiness Zones 5 to 10.
Dull Oregon grape (B. nervosa) is another Pacific Northwest native, with a range from British Columbia to California, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho.
Also known as “Cascade barberry” and “longleaf mahonia,” this evergreen species has oblong leaves with sharp teeth. Longleaf mahonia usually reaches about two feet tall and three feet wide, but can sometimes grow as tall as six feet.
While its leaves aren’t exactly dull, they are not quite as shiny as those of tall Oregon grape, thus its name.
Dull Oregon grape produces yellow flowers in late spring to early summer, followed by blue berries.
This species thrives in well-drained soils. It grows best in part shade, and has low moisture needs once established.
Longleaf mahonia can be grown in USDA Hardiness Zones 5 to 9.
Creeping Oregon grape (B. repens) is native to western North America, ranging from Minnesota and Texas to California and British Columbia.
This semi-evergreen has a trailing growth habit with leathery, holly-like leaves that have a matte finish.
Also known as M. repens and “creeping barberry,” this low-growing species also has yellow flowers, and its fruits are blue to black.
With a ground cover type growth habit, creeping barberry usually reaches about a foot tall with a three- to four-foot spread.
This plant can be grown in USDA Hardiness Zones 4b to 8b.
It grows well in dry, sunny to shady conditions. It has moderate drought tolerance and moderate water needs once established.
This species also has excellent fall color. In autumn, its leaves turn yellow, red, and purple.
B. Repens Seeds
Grow your own creeping Oregon grape from seed – you’ll find packs of 10 seeds from the Palm Beach Medicinal Herbs store via Amazon.
A cultivar of B. eurybracteata native to South China, ‘Soft Caress’ is a cultivar designed for those who like the flowers and berries of mahonias, but aren’t so keen on their prickly leaves.
‘Soft Caress’ has fine, bluish-green leaves that are soft to the touch, giving this shrub a wispy appearance. It reaches four to five feet tall and three to four feet wide.
This cultivar produces canelike growth and tends to spread, forming colonies.
Grow it in full sun to part shade in well-draining soil. ‘Soft Caress’ has moderate moisture needs.
This evergreen plant flowers in fall and produces bluish-black fruits.
Grow ‘Soft Caress’ in USDA Hardiness Zones 7 to 10.
‘Soft Caress’ Mahonia
You’ll find ‘Soft Caress’ mahonia available for purchase in a selection of sizes from Nature Hills.
Managing Pests and Disease
Oregon grape isn’t a shrub that is known for being besieged by pests or diseases. But like most plants living in the great outdoors, it can sometimes be targeted.
Here’s what you should be on the lookout for:
If you grow one of the prickly-leaved types of mahonia, you won’t have to worry much about browsers like deer nibbling your plant’s foliage – those sharp leaf spines and tough leaves are off-putting to these four-legged neighbors.
Birds will be attracted to the berries on your plant, which could be a good thing if you’re gardening for wildlife – or an inconvenience if you’re hoping to harvest them yourself.
My advice is, grow extras so there’s plenty to share!
However, if your primary purpose in growing these shrubs is to harvest the berries, you may want to invest in a crop cage.
Large Storm Proof Crop Cage
You can purchase a large stormproof crop cage from Gardener’s Supply Company.
As expected, you will notice insects visiting your mahonias. But most of these will be pollinators, drawn to the scented, bright yellow flowers of these plants.
Here are some of the unwanted visitors you should look out for – it’s a good idea to check your plants for them when the shrubs arrive from the greenhouse or nursery:
Noticing tufts of white fluff on your shrubs? They could be woolly aphids, but then again, they could be mealybugs. (Grab a hand lens or snap a closeup photo if you’re not sure – if most of the bugs you’re seeing lack wings, they are mealybugs.)
These sucking insects steal nutrients from plants, and sometimes spread disease as well.
If you notice mealybugs on your shrubs, grab your garden hose, and use a strong jet of water to knock them off. That may in itself do the trick, though you may have to repeat the hose blast every day for a week.
Need more help dealing with mealybugs? Read our article.
Related to mealybugs, another pest to look out for is scale.
Scale insects also suck nutrients from plants, but they are much harder to remove than mealybugs.
These pests have carapaces that serve as camouflage, making them look more like little spots stuck on a plant’s stems or leaves, maybe more like a sign of disease than a pest.
For light infestations of scale, you can gently scrape them off with a butterknife.
But for larger infestations, you’ll want to read our article to learn about your options for controlling scale insects.
Not all thrips are pests, but the ones that feed on plants can be a real problem.
These insects feed on sap, leaving telltale signs such as stippling, scarring, and discoloration on both leaves and flowers.
Making matters worse, they can also spread diseases to plants as they feed.
If you suspect a thrip infestation, you’ll need to acquaint yourself with integrated pest management practices so you can properly monitor and manage these pests.
Learn more about controlling thrips in our article.
Seeing any suspicious looking spots on the foliage of your Oregon grapes? Here’s what to monitor for:
Leaf spot diseases cause exactly what you would expect – spotted foliage.
These diseases, which also afflict beets, cole crops, and tomatoes, among other plants, are caused by fungi, bacteria, and other pathogens.
While leaf spots won’t always affect an entire mahonia shrub or even prevent it from thriving, these pathogens can interfere with the plant’s ability to photosynthesize, and infections can cause leaves to drop.
Prevention should be your main tactic when it comes to these diseases, and the pathogens thrive in wet conditions.
To discourage leaf spot, allow adequate spacing between plants to ensure good airflow.
When watering, water at the base of the plants rather than using sprinklers.
Finally, when applying mulch, take care not to pile it up around the shrubs’ stems. Instead, leave a couple of mulch-free inches around the crowns to keep moisture and humidity levels there in check.
Powdery mildew is a fungal disease that causes the formation of dusty, whitish-gray spots on plant foliage and stems.
The fungus thrives when conditions are mild with higher humidity at night.
While some specimens recover from powdery mildew on their own, others can develop deformed foliage.
Luckily, it’s easy to manage powdery mildew organically. Learn more about treating powdery mildew with homemade and organic remedies here!
Another fungal disease, rust will cause the appearance of orange, red, or yellow spots or growths on plant foliage and stems.
Severe infections can cause leaves to pucker and fall.
These pathogens can affect many other types of plants in addition to mahonias, including roses, canna lilies, apple trees, and asparagus.
You run the biggest risk of rust with Oregon grapes if you purchase a specimen that was infected in the nursery, so inspect new plants before you buy them and look for the tell-tale signs of reddish colored spots on foliage.
Taking steps to prevent rust infections is much like preventing other fungal diseases – ensure adequate spacing and airflow between plants, and avoid overhead watering.
To treat rust, remove any infected leaves. And don’t put these into your compost pile, to avoid spread.
Monterey Neem Oil
New growth can be protected by applying a fungicide to new leaves, such as Monterey Neem Oil, available via Arbico Organics.
Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for applying this product.
However, be aware that while nontoxic for humans and pets, neem oil will kill beneficial insects as well as performing its fungicidal duties, so apply only if absolutely necessary and with caution.
Best Uses of Oregon Grape
As shrubs, Oregon grapes can take on many different roles in the home landscape.
Of foremost interest to many of us foragers, these shrubs can be incorporated as edible landscaping. When growing them for their fruit, know that these are self-pollinating plants, so you can get by with just one specimen.
The berries can be quite acidic, so are most often incorporated into jellies or jams, where their tartness can be tempered with added sugar.
But let’s not let our appetites run away with us and overlook the aesthetic value of these plants, which make excellent foundation plantings!
With their compound, toothed leaves, grape hollies cut a coarse silhouette in the landscape, drawing the eye.
Many species can be used for xeriscaping, and they will also be effective when used in mass plantings.
They make a good substitute for the highly invasive heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica). (But if both Oregon grape and nandina are invasive in your area, why not find a native alternative?)
And of course, these shrubs are real knockouts when it comes to fall color. In fact, they offer more than just autumn color, they provide spring and winter color as well!
We’ve covered food for humans and visual interest, but these plants also have excellent functional value.
For starters, mahonias provide great food and habitat for wildlife.
Low-growing types like creeping barberry can be used as a ground cover to stabilize slopes, fight erosion, or to restore clear cut areas.
Upright species like tall Oregon grape can be used to form hedgerows, borders, or screens.
Or put their prickly leaves to use in defensive landscaping!
Looking for companion plants for your mahonias?
Depending on your location, landscaping needs, and chosen Berberis species, make your selection for companions among perennials like columbine (Aquilegia spp.), western sword fern (Polystichum munitum), or rosy pussytoes (Antennaria rosea).
For shrubs, consider Apache plume (Fallugia paradoxa), oceanspray (Holodiscus discolor), rubber rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosa), or serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia).
For deciduous tree pals, these make excellent choices: bigtooth maple (Acer grandidentatum), Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), Gambel oak (Quercus gambelii), Indian plum (Oemlaria cerasiformis), Oregon white oak (Quercus garryana), or quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides).
Finally, for evergreen trees, you might consider Pacific madrone (Arbutus menziesii), pinyon pines (Pinus spp.), redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), Rocky Mountain juniper (Juniperus scopulorum), or western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla) as companion plants.
Quick Reference Growing Guide
|Plant Type:||Evergreen or semi-evergreen woody shrub||Flower/Foliage Color:||Yellow/green to bluish-green/blue, black, or red|
|Native to:||Asia, North America||Maintenance:||Low|
|Hardiness (USDA Zone):||4b-10b, depending on species||Tolerance:||Drought|
|Bloom Time/Season:||Spring, summer, or fall||Soil Type:||Loam, rocky, or sandy, depending on species|
|Exposure:||Sun, part shade, or shade, depending on species||Soil pH:||4.0-8.0|
|Time to Maturity:||Varies, depending on species||Soil Drainage:||Well-draining|
|Spacing:||1-12 feet, depending on species||Attracts:||Bees, birds, butterflies, hummingbirds|
|Planting Depth:||1/2 inch (seeds), root ball level with soil surface (transplants)||Companion Planting:||Ferns, hemlocks, junipers, madrones, maples, pines, rabbitbrush, redwoods|
|Height:||1-15 feet, depending on species||Uses:||Borders, defensive landscaping, edible landscaping, foundation plantings, ground covers, hedges, rock gardens, xeriscaping|
|Spread:||2-12 feet, depending on species||Family:||Berberidaceae|
|Water Needs:||Low to moderate||Genus:||Berberis (syn. Mahonia)|
|Common Pests and Diseases:||Barberry aphids, barberry loopers, mealybugs, scale, thrips, whiteflies; leaf spot, powdery mildew, rust||Species:||Aquifolium, Fremontii, Hematocarpa, Nervosa, Repens|
A Mahonia by Any Other Name
Whatever you want to call these plants, and no matter how taxonomists care to classify them, I think we’ll agree on one thing – they are fascinating plants!
With autumn color, gorgeous flowers, and big, edible berries to recommend them, does it really matter what we call them?
What’s your motivation for growing these plants? Are they part of your edible landscaping? Are you using them as defensive plantings? Or are you just a fan of their colorful leaves?
Let us know in the comments section below. Be sure to tell us what your favorite name for them is as well! And if you need help troubleshooting, drop us a comment, we’ll be glad to try to help you out.
Interested in perusing more excellent woody shrubs for fall color? Keep reading right here: