Forget about trying to grow grass under that big fir tree in your front yard. Plant some creeping mahonia there instead. This glossy evergreen ground cover, native to western North America, can turn a sad patch into a showpiece. Its leaves look like holly leaves—dark green with serrated edges—and they turn purple-brown in the fall. In early spring fragrant yellow flowers appear on the foot-high shrub. Summer sees clusters of edible but sour berries. This isn’t just any old shrub you’re letting loose on your problem spot, either—it’s got credentials. Creeping mahonia is the 2009 Shrub of the Year, according to the Nebraska Statewide Arboretum.
Common name: Creeping mahonia, creeping barberry, creeping hollygrape, dwarf Oregon grape
Botanical name: Mahonia repens
Plant type: Evergreen shrub
Zones: 5 to 8
Height: About 12 inches
• Sun: Best in part shade or dappled shade
• Soil: Average, well-drained, acidic
• Moisture: Medium
• Mulch: Three to six inches of organic mulch will help the soil retain moisture.
• Pruning: Pull suckers as needed.
• Fertilizer: None needed.
• By seed or division.
Pests and diseases
• Vulnerable to leaf spots, leaf scorch, and rusts.
• Whitefly, scale insects, and aphids can be problems.
• M. repens spreads by stolons, but it creeps slowly and is not considered invasive.
• Dry shade (such as under a large tree) is one of the toughest spots for a shrub, but M. repens thrives in spots like this. In the wild, it’s often found under conifers, where there’s dappled shade and acidic soil.
• It can also handle full sun, and it’s drought tolerant.
• The evergreen foliage can scorch or burn, so plant M. repens in a place that’s sheltered from winter winds.
All in the family
• Also in Berberidaceae, or the barberry family, are the familiar garden plants heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica), barrenworts (Epimedium spp.), mayapples (Podophyllum spp.), and, of course, barberries (Berberis spp.).
• Several other native mahonias are popular in gardens. The Oregon state flower, Oregon grapeholly (M. aquifolium), grows 3 feet tall and 5 feet wide but is otherwise very similar to M. repens. M. fremontii, a large bush found in the southwest U.S. and Mexico, grows even taller, to about 6 feet tall and wide. Cascades mahonia (M. nervosa), though just a bit larger than M. repens, produces leaves and flower racemes more than twice as long. Asian mahonias like M. japonica and cultivars of hybrids like M. x media are also favorites.
Where to buy
• Big Dipper Farm, Black Diamond, WA, 360-886-8133, www.bigdipperfarm.com.
• Cold Stream Farm, Free Soil, MI, 231-464-5809, www.coldstreamfarm.net.
• Forestfarm, Williams, OR, 541-846-7269, www.forestfarm.com.
(Photo of Mahonia repens courtesy of Nebraska Statewide Arboretum)