Of the many species of Mahonia, three are abundant in Oregon and throughout the Pacific Northwest: Mahonia aquifolium, Mahonia repens, and Mahonia nervosa.

All three are evergreen and have the characteristic holly-like leaf shape, some more pointed and prickly than others. Woody-stemmed and spreading by rhizomes, the new growth in the spring emerges in a light green to soft coppery-red color; at the other end of the year the foliage responds to colder weather by taking on shades of bright red to burgundy - truly lovely in the grayed winter landscape.

In early-spring, the plant is topped with sprays of small bright yellow fragrant flowers in a long-blooming display that attract bees, hummingbirds and other pollinators to the garden. Following the bloom are clusters of dusky blue, round to oblong berries that are the "grapes" that give it its common name.

The berries are edible, though not always palatable, as they are often quite tart. Recipes for jelly usually combine the juice of Oregon grape with that of the sweeter salal berries or apple concentrate. The root has traditional medicinal properties, and along with the yellow inner bark has been used as a dye. There are many sources of information about these uses but here are two at Bosky Dell Natives: Recipes from Bosky Dell Natives and an article on teas by Judy Bluehorse Skelton, herbalist and educator (Thank you to Bosky Dell Natives).

mahonia aquilfolium

Mahonia aquifolium Tall Oregon Grape

This woodland beauty is Oregon's state flower. It is the tallest of the native species, sometimes reaching up to ten feet, though more often in garden settings staying four-to-five feet tall; upright, sometimes slightly arching branches covered with the prickliest of leaves – a good candidate for a hedgerow or back of a garden bed.

Give it some space, for the tough rhizomes can have it spreading to a richly textured evergreen thicket that is a wonderful protective site for birds. The effects of cold, sun and even age, will cause leaves to take on shades of red to nearly purple, providing a rich tapestry of color when joined with the bronze-red color of its new growth, the bright yellow of the flowers and the dusky blue of the berries.

Mahonia aquifolium can easily withstand the dry shade under large trees, though also tolerant of moist (not wet) conditions. It can grow in full sun, but will suffer if not given some shade where summers are hot, even with more regular water. All in all, a beautiful, adaptable, bird-friendly addition to many garden settings.

mahonia nervosa

Mahonia nervosa Cascade, Long-leaved, or Dull Oregon Grape

This Oregon grape is lower growing evergreen shrub, topping out at about two feet. The pale yellow flowers form in long racemes of about eight inches, and the leaves are blue-green turning dusky maroon during winter.

A slower-growing species, it is especially well-suited to areas of dry shade, providing an attractive anchor for the border of a shady garden.

mahonia repens

Mahonia repens Low, or Creeping Oregon Grape

The lowest growing of the three, Mahonia repens generally grows to only about a foot in height, with a spread to three feet. The spines on the more rounded leaves are papery, so not too dangerous to place near a path.

A species from east of the Cascades, low Oregon grape will grow happily in full sun to full shade; it is the most successful for perpetually dry shade and once established is drought tolerant even in sunny conditions. Full sun and winter cold give the leaves a bronze cast. A great plant for cover and food for ground-feeding birds.

Mahonia repens is considered a noxious weed in other parts of the country, but is fully garden-worthy here in its native range.

Mahonia pumila, Dwarf western Oregon grape

There is a fourth native species, Mahonia pumila - dwarf western Oregon grape - native especially to the far corner of southwest Oregon and into northern California. It is lower growing even than the Mahonia repens, with blue-gray-green leaves, and is also tolerant of drier, sunnier conditions. It is not commonly available, however so Mahonia repens is the usual choice for sunnier, drier garden settings.