The fragrant yellow flowers open in early spring and standout against the backdrop of the green foliage.
While perennial and annual flowers get most of the glory and attention, there are not a lot of options in shrub material that are an early season food source. Consider the woody ornamental, Mahonia aquifolium, as a component of your bee friendly landscape to brighten up the early spring garden. It's a native of the western United States that blooms in early to mid-April. The flowers are very attractive and visible above the evergreen foliage. The bright yellow blooms, along with their slight fragrance, not only draws the attention of a passerby but also many early season pollinators.
Beyond the Latin name, it is commonly referred to as Oregon grapeholly. This partly recognizes its native location (it is the state flower of Oregon) but also provides a good descriptor of its other ornamental characteristics.
To the untrained eye, the leaves are very similar to Ilex opaca or American holly with the foliage a dark, shiny green and spiny. And like most of our holly species, Oregon grapeholly leaves remain year round. Newly emerging foliage in the spring has a reddish color and can be quite attractive. Whereas American holly leaves are simple and alternate, Oregon grapeholly's leaf consists of 7-9 leaflets.
This center of the picture represents one leaf of a Mahonia (seven leaflets). Photo courtesy of Mike Masiuk
Newly emerging leaves in the spring have a reddish color. Notice the evergreen leaves in the background. Photo courtesy of Mike Masiuk
The second part of the common name refers to the fruiting structure. After pollination, small berries begin to form. They turn a dark blue color in late summer/early fall and hang slightly downward; reminiscent of grapes. The literature states that these berries are edible and make excellent jellies. Fruiting is greatly reduced if only one plant is in the yard. Best fruiting is achieved with multiple plants nearby to insure adequate pollination.
The size and shape of Oregon grapeholly's edible fruits reminds one of grapes. Photo courtesy of Mike Masiuk
It grows about 5 feet high and wide but not one of the fastest growing shrubs in the trade; a couple of inches a year. Site placement is important to maintain a good looking plant. The leaves are very sensitive to winter winds as they can easily desiccate and turn brown.
A planting of Oregon grapeholly in full bloom. Notice a few of the leaves are brownish on the edges with some slight winter damage.
It also prefers soils that are slightly moist or retain water. As a result, keep it out of locations that receive sun all day. The best location is an area in the yard that is semi to full shade. Keep out of soils that have a high pH.
Go beyond the ordinary 'bread and butter' shrubs (plants that appear in almost every landscape) and try something new.