It’s been a mild winter…

…..on the Seacoast of New Hampshire. Lots of rain with temperatures that have fluctuated in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s during the day, and the 20’s and 30’s during the overnight for the most part. But this mild pattern is about to change. Last night we had mild overnight temperature of 33°. Tonight’s temperatures will drop into the mid-teens. Nighttime temperatures will stay there or much lower for the rest of the month. Sigh. Winter has arrived.

So this morning, I had a job to do. Out came the burlap to protect two of my woody plants, the mahonias, that I consider borderline plants in my less sheltered garden sites. Officially we are zone 6 in Exeter, but I always plant for hardiness zone 5b as I learned while working at Rolling Green Nursery here in NH.

mahonia NH 2019

It’s a lovely winter blooming plant and they are beginning to develop terminal blooms on several stems. With temperatures dropping to single digits tomorrow night, I needed to protect those new blooms that are oh-so tiny.

mahonia bloom January 2019

Those blooms will open to beautiful, lemon-yellow clusters in late February or March and look like this photo (below) taken in my January gardens in Virginia. As an early blooming plant, these fragrant blooms are well-known for helping to feed those first bees that are searching for nectar in the spring.

honeybee on mahonia

After pollination, the fruits develop the most divine grape-like clusters of powder blue berries. Unfortunately, they don’t stay on the plants long. My catbirds arrive from warmer climes and devour all before any other migrating bird has a chance!

mahonia berries in Virginia

Mahonia is closely related to the barberry, but the leaves are spiny and look more like a holly shrub. These slow-growing plants are planted in a shady mixed-shrub border that I am currently planning a big redesign. Not to worry… my mahonia shrubs stay just where they are as the jewels in the crown of this garden in New Hampshire.

We could all use a ‘Soft Caress’

Mahonia eurybracteata, ‘Soft Touch’ mahonia

At a garden show a year ago I finally put my hands on a plant that I had only read about: ‘Soft Caress’ Mahonia (Mahonia eurybracteata), a new introduction marketed through Novalis’ Plants That Work.  The leaves of this plant were nothing like the spiny holly-like leaves on the mahonia that grows in my garden. This plant really was soft. The leaves were long and graceful, looking a bit like bamboo.  I knew then that I would eventually own one.

There are around 70 species of mahonia plants around the world, with North America’s native Oregon Grape Holly (Mahonia aquifolium) being one that we know well.  Named after Bernard McMahon (1775-1816), a horticulturist and one of two men selected by Thomas Jefferson to receive and grow these Pacific Northwest seeds from the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Mahonia aquifolium, Oregon Grape Holly. Click photo.

Last week I finally stumbled upon a young ‘Soft Caress’ in glorious bloom at a nearby nursery and I snatched it up.  It’s tucked into a more shaded spot in the garden, close enough to the house that the lemony yellow racemes of blooms will be visible from a window. Later in the winter, bluish berries should replace the blooms. I expect ‘Soft Caress’ to be a relatively fast growing evergreen, reaching about 4-feet in height and I’m certain it will continue to give interest and structure to this zone 7 garden throughout the winter months.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester