How to Grow Mahonia

How to Grow and Care for Mahonia: Simple Guide

If you want to know how to grow mahonia and how you can care for mahonia, then you are at the right place. Most mahonia shrubs are densely textured and have large, eye-catching foliage. They are shrubs that grow well in shady areas of your yard and are popular as privacy hedges. They’re commonly used in minimalist landscape designs, particularly in southern states, due to their architectural, dramatic appearance.

Mahonias, native to North America, are easy to grow and have a tropical appearance. Pollinators like bees and butterflies are drawn to the fragrant golden-yellow blooms in late winter or early spring. The dark bluish-black berries attract various birds, who may also seek refuge in the dense, green foliage. These upright evergreen shrubs appeal because they provide year-round interest and have deer-resistant spiky foliage. Plant mahonias in the spring or fall when the weather is mild.

How to Grow and Care for Mahonia

Mahonias are well-known for their slow growth, hardiness, and low maintenance. They dislike being moved, and proper site selection is critical to their success. Protect your shrub from freezing winds, which can cause burns in the winter, and make sure it has enough space to grow because it doesn’t like being crowded.

1. Light

Most mahonia can tolerate full sun and heavy shade. On the other hand, they thrive in partial shade. Deep shade can cause some species to grow leggy.

2. Soil 

One of the benefits of mahonia species is that they are not picky about the type of soil they grow in. They typically thrive in sandy, loamy, and clay soils, as well as a variety of pH levels. All that is required is that the soil be moist and well-drained.

3. Water

In general, mahonias benefit from regular deep watering while they establish (especially during the first year), but avoid waterlogging. Once established, they are known to be drought-tolerant and will usually only require watering during hot, dry spells.

4. Humidity and temperature

Apart from the risk of foliage burn from freezing winds, mahonias can withstand a wide range of temperatures. They can usually withstand temperatures as low as 5 degrees Fahrenheit. However, if temperatures fall this low, mulching around the shrub in the fall to protect the roots may be beneficial.

5. Fertilizer 

These plants do not require a strict fertilization regimen. An annual spring feeding of a slow-release, low-nitrogen fertilizer or a thick layer of mulch or compost enriched with fish and bone meal should suffice.

Types of Mahonia

The Mahonia genus contains approximately 70 plant species, as well as numerous cultivars and hybrids. Some popular and widely available varieties are:

  • Oregon Grape (Mahonia aquifolium): This species, known by the botanical synonym Berberis aquifolium, grows about 6 feet tall. On the other hand, USDA zones 5 to 8 are suitable.
  • Creeping mahonia (Mahonia repens): Unlike many mahonia species, this is a low-growing shrub that grows about a foot tall and works well as a leafy ground cover. USDA zones 5 to 8 are suitable.
  • Mahonia fremontii (Frémont’s mahonia): Grows up to 8 feet tall. However, USDA zone 5 is suitable for this shrub.
  • Media x Mahonia ‘Charity’: This tall, tough, and adaptable hybrid can reach up to 15 feet in height and is frequently used to create a natural privacy fence. USDA zones 7–9 are suitable.


Mahonias do not require a lot of pruning. Light pruning every couple of years in early spring after any frosts have passed, on the other hand, can encourage healthy foliage growth. Thinning out any crowded branches can also help to maintain a tidy appearance.

Cutting your shrub back to the ground can help it recover a more compact, full habit if it has been growing in deep shade, resulting in leggy, straggly growth or tall specimens that have become bare at the base. After pruning, it’s a good idea to mulch around the shrub’s base and gives it a light feed to encourage new, healthy growth.

It’s also a good idea to keep any plant suckers from this slow and steady grower under control. If you don’t want the space to become overcrowded with mahonias, you should remove these.

Mahonia propagation

Most mahonia species are easily propagated from cuttings taken in late summer or early fall, before flowering begins. Following the steps outlined below can help to improve your chances of success:

1. Take a 6-inch cutting from semi-ripe, current season growth.

2. Remove the leaves from the cutting’s bottom half. 

3. Dip the cut end in the rooting hormone.

4. Plant in moist, well-drained potting soil in a warm spot in a greenhouse or indoors.

6. Wrap in plastic to keep the moisture in.

7. Keep moist until roots form.

How to Grow Mahonia From Seed

Follow the steps below for spring planting to try to grow new mahonia from seeds:

1. Separate the fleshy berries from the seeds.

2. Cold-stratify any collected seeds for at least one month.

3. Transfer the seeds to a warmer location (around 65 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit) for another month.

4. Plant the seeds about 1/4 inch deep in the potting soil.

Alternatively, you can direct-sow the seeds in the ground in the fall and hope for spring germination.

Read More:

Mahonia Potting and Repotting

Mahonia is generally unsuitable for container growing due to its spreading habit. For the best results, grow in the ground where there is plenty of room for this spread.

Common Plant Diseases

Mahonias are a hardy species, and pests and serious diseases are uncommon. They are susceptible to rust and powdery mildew (which causes brown spots on the foliage). While neither is usually fatal, they can cause leaf curling, withering, or dropping.

Watering shrubs at the plant base rather than over the leaves, avoiding damp areas, and removing infected sections can all help to reduce these issues. Fungicides can be used if you think the problem is difficult to control. Rust is especially damaging to Mahonia aquifolium.

Problem Mahonia and How to Prune Mahonia

The most common issue with growing Mahonia is that they can become leggy, with all of the leaves and flowers in the top growth. If the shrub has become leggy and bare, prune out the leggy branches after flowering or hard prune the entire shrub. 

To keep the shrub from becoming bare, some gardening advice suggests pruning out one-third of the branches once a year. This image depicts some of the issues that Mahonia faces, though it is not the best example. 

I’ll keep looking for scruffy Mahonia in gardens because I believe it’s important to show plants and shrubs at their best and worst because both grow in our gardens.

The problem of leggy Mahonia is simple to solve because Mahonia belongs to the group of evergreen shrubs that respond well to hard pruning. Hard Mahonia, Choisya, and Rhododendrons can be pruned, and while they may look sorry when first pruned during the season, they will sprout new growth and recover.

I’ve also seen the problem solved by dense planting of smaller shrubs in front of the Mahonia to hide the bare base, which works well. I hope now you know how to grow Mahonia and how you can care Mahonia.


Q1. How quickly do Mahonias grow?

Mahonia growth rates vary depending on the species, but they are typically slow and steady growers.

Q2. What other plants are related to mahonia?

With their serrated, rich green foliage, many mahonia species resemble holly. They’re also closely related to the berberis, though experts disagree on whether they belong in the same genus.

Q3. Can the berries of a mahonia shrub be eaten?

Many mahonia species’ berries are edible and pet-friendly, though they are often better cooked because they have an acidic taste when consumed raw. As a result, other parts of the plant should be avoided. It contains berberine, which can be harmful if consumed in large amounts.

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