Creeping Mahonia

mahonia-aquifolium-compacta_oregon-grape_dbg-co_lah_4128When you have a smaller yard, you want every plant to earn its keep. With fragrant yellow flowers, blue berries, and green leaves that turn purple in winter, Creeping Mahonia (aka Oregon Grape, Mahonia repens) definitely deserves a spot!

These are low-growing plants, about 12” to 18” tall, with underground stems (stolons) that spread up to three feet in width.  Spring brings an abundance of small, deep yellow flowers, attractively set off by the dark green leaves. By late summer, these mature into clusters of small, dusty-blue berries that are sour but edible. (A similar species, M. haematocarpa, has red berries). The holly-like foliage persists into winter, turning a lovely plum with the advent of cold weather.

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Colorado’s “Holly”

Pyracantha berries@ColoSpgs LAH 131We’ve succumbed—an artificial tree, fake garlands, silk poinsettias. As I pull our Christmas bins out of storage, I wonder—how did a gardener stoop this low? Isn’t there something Christmas-y I can grow here in Colorado? It would be so nice to simply go outside and snip a few branches to grace our mantle.

While holly isn’t really adapted to our high and dry conditions, and the mistletoe growing in the Ponderosa pines differs from the pretty parasites of England, there is one plant that not only produces red berries in December, it’s one of the very few broad-leafed evergreens to survive in Zone 5!

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Ho, Ho, Holly

ilex_holly-berries“Deck the balls with boughs of holly” might work well in Merry Olde England, or even in the eastern U.S., but it’s not very practical at my house,  just north of Colorado Springs, Colorado. We have too much sunshine, the air and soil is too dry, and our soils are too lean and too alkaline. Holly won’t survive winter’s dessicating winds. At least, that’s what I learned when we moved here.

So imagine my surprise a couple of weeks ago when I was out for a walk in a near-by subdivision, and there were two bushes, covered with green leaves and red berries, planted in the strip of soil between the sidewalk and the street. Could it be?

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