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Oregon Grape Holly

Plant of the Week

Oregon Grape Holly
Latin: Mahonia aquifolium

Oregon Grape Holly is probably the best garden plant Lewis and Clark brought back to the United States when they made their trip into the newly acquired Louisiana Territory.

Most of us have a finite amount of space in our gardens, so the decision to add a plant into the mix is a serious one. Though easily distracted by glitz and glamour, I try to make a point to use plants that have a story to tell.

The Oregon grape holly ( Mahonia aquifolium) is on my short list to add to my garden because of the Lewis and Clark expedition of 200 years ago.

Oregon grape holly is an evergreen shrub growing 5 to 6 feet tall from branches produced by a slowly spreading underground root system. It's neither a grape nor a holly but a member of the barberry family. It has compound leaves with 11 to 19 leaflets, each about 2 inches long and ringed with spiny teeth. In the summertime, leaves are dark green; in winter they turn maroon.

In later winter, clusters of small, bright yellow blossoms open along slender peduncles borne at the ends of the branches that radiate outward like spokes on a wheel. In June, raisin-sized berries ripen to crown the branches with rows of waxy, bluish fruit.

Oregon grape holly is native from the British Columbia to northern California . The intrepid explorers and their band picked seeds and herbarium specimens along the Columbia River as they headed towards the Pacific. Of the 178 new plants Lewis collected, Oregon grape holly is perhaps the best general garden shrub for eastern gardens.

Our national fascination with Lewis and Clark is understandable, for theirs is a timeless tale for anyone interested in natural history, geography, anthropology, leadership or plain old adventure. Neither Lewis nor Clark were well versed in plants, so President Jefferson sent Merewether Lewis to Philadelphia for a crash course in botany from Dr. Benjamin Smith Barton. While there, Barton introduced him to Bernard M'Mahon (1775-1816), a Philadelphia nurseryman and friend of the president.

M'Mahon had considerable experience in growing woody plants from seed. Though trained in gardening in his native Ireland , he became the first American-based author to produce a book on the subject for gardeners in the new nation. The American Gardener's Calendar was published in 1806 and is still easy to find in print from its many editions.

Around the table in M'Mahon's kitchen, he and Lewis discussed how to collect and safely store seeds. When the expedition returned to the United States , the seeds were turned over to M'Mahon who succeeded in getting many to germinate, including the Oregon grape holly. He was the first to offer plants of Oregon grape holly to the public through the pages of his catalog.

Oregon grape holly is an easy to grow plant that is hardy in all parts of Arkansas and as far north as Chicago . To some it's considered leggy and open; I prefer to think of it as interesting and picturesque. Because of its tendency to produce a topknot of leaves at the ends of bare branches, occasional limb removal back to the ground keeps new branches coming from below and keeps the bush full.

It does best in light shade, but will tolerate full sun if kept well watered. It seems completely immune to insect and disease problems.

By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Extension Horticulturist - Ornamentals
Extension News - April 15, 2005


The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture does not maintain lists of retail outlets where these plants can be purchased. Please check your local nursery or other retail outlets to ask about the availability of these plants for your growing area.