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Should I Rip Out My Mahonia?

I have always admired the mahonia in my woodland garden. Leatherleaf mahonia grows five to ten feet tall. In late winter it produces sweet smelling yellow flowers, followed by bluish berries which hang in clusters similar to grapes and which are attractive to birds. The architectural foliage is very spiky and thus deer resistant. It is rarely bothered by pests or disease. It grows well in woodland conditions. Low maintenaince. My kind of plant!

Honestly, I thought it was native. But I have discovered it ain't so. While Mahonia aquifolium, or Oregon grape holly, is an American native that grows in the western part of our country, Mahonia bealei, or leatherleaf mahonia, is a Chinese import that has naturalized throughout the southeastern states and is now considered an invasive. In fact, it is listed as prohibited in my state of Alabama.

Mahonia does self seed, but I can easily pull up the small ones by hand. Compared to Boston ivy, a woodland monster I battle constantly, my mahonias are well behaved wimps. I think it is beautiful. I like the way it complements the nandina domestica that also grows in my woodlands, another plant considered an invasive.

So what am I to do? It is unlikely that some government agency will show up in hazmat suits, to rip up my garden while I'm hauled off to jail. But should I take them out myself? And what native plant would replace them?

I am taking a hard look at my woodland garden. It is a difficult decision.

Follow-up note: See  My Decision

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Reader Comments (21)

Deb, It's gorgeous...and when a plant looks so healthy and feeds critters it becomes doubly hard to decide to remove it~You might contact a local arboretum or botanical garden and speak to their native plant specialists to see if they have suggestions...I was thinking that one of the native myrtles would be a good evergreen replacement...If you decide to take them out. gail

February 4, 2011 | Unregistered Commentergail

Let it stay! Since you are gardening responsibly and pulling any seedlings, you're not part of the problem. Someone once got irritated at me for growing butterfly bush since they've become invasive, but I always kept it deadheaded and it never went to seed. So I just ignored them. Besides, there is a huge, non-stop debate as to what is truly considered native, anyway.

February 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCasa Mariposa

If you love it you should keep it! You garden responsibly and you are not letting it become invasive.Your photos of it look beautiful in your woodland garden.

February 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKarin/Southern Meadows

Hi Deb,
I have two that I inherited in my Alabama garden. I had no idea what they were until someone told me too that they were invasive. Then I was faced with the same dilemma. What to do, what to do??!!! They are still here. I actually cut one way back as it was hogging a spot next to two pretty azaleas. The other one I trimmed back but it seems to be doing well. I love that the birds love them and they do make for nice photography as you have proved!! I don't see any around my woods growing so am thinking they haven't spread here too much.
That is a tough question to answer. When you come up here to visit LaRues Native Gardens, I bet you'll go home with something perfect!!! :-)

February 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEve

Deb, please keep it!!! I "saved" a mahonia from a neighboring property before a subdivision took it out. Unfortunately, it didn't survive being transplanted. I think it is one of the most beautiful plants. Please keep it!

February 5, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterfiddlewood

A resounding no if you can keep it under control. The wildlife would miss it.

February 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDonna

Keep it. It has value in your garden and you have a great diversity of other plants in your well tended ecosystem. It's all about diversity and a wide range of plants, not banning any one plant, or letting any one plant take over.

February 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLaurrie

I say if you love it, you keep it. Are you going to take out the nandinas, too? Where does it stop -- when your whole garden is nothing but natives that you don't necessarily like as well? Natives are great, but we have lots of well adapted plants (from China) that we love, as well. If it is easily controlled by pulling out seedlings, then I wouldn't consider that invasive.

February 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterToni - Signature Gardens

Hi Deb! I would not rip it out. If the shrub is happy and not harming any other plant or habitat. Why not let it be. I do not only have native plants in my gardens. There are some plants and shrubs I simply could not live without. I prefer native and add more each year. They can coexist. Good luck with your choice! Your gardens are so lovely and I know there is room for lots more natives . . . you should not feel bad about this immigrant. It is not considered invasive . . . right?

February 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCarol

I disagree with the approach taken by the other commenters. The problem with the plant is that the birds like the berries. They eat the berries, fly away, and deposit them in the wild where no one is around to cull the seedlings. You take the seedlings out in your garden, but who removes them in the local parks and wild places? If your state has labeled this mahonia invasive, there is a very good reason for that, and you should consider very carefully before you ignore their concerns if you truly care about the environment. The issue is not whether to replace it with a native plant, you can replace it with an exotic plant if the plant isn't invasive. It's easy to be environmentally sound when nothing must be sacrificed; it's harder when we actually have to give up something we want. I spend all summer convincing people to make these sacrifices on a small island in Maine overrun with invasive exotics. I know it's hard, but there really is only one answer.

I didn't realize that Mahonia was invasive anywhere. I can't think of a native woodland plant that would fit all of the traits of a Mahonia. American Beautyberry will fruit well in dappled sun or half a day of sun; Alabama Croton will often keep its leaves during winter; Mapleleaf Viburnum loves a dryish woodland garden, has gorgeous fall color and fruit; Highbush Blueberry has vivid very late fall color. Sparkleberry is a blueberry relative that likes dry conditions and grows into a small tree; it too has late red fall color.

February 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSweetbay

Hard question, I think if you can keep it under control with ease it might be best to keep. It is a beautiful plant after all

February 6, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterfer

Yes, i think that Carolyn of Carolyn's Shade Garden has indicated it is not as easy as the other coments suggest.
I guess you have the responsibility of the woods around you to think about and they always seem from your photos to be a key part of your look!
Quite a weighty responsibility that.
Congrats on raising it and thinking about it.
I guess that is the first step.
Best Wishes
PS love mahonias - think lomariifolia is the real star!

February 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRobert Webber

I admire you for wanting to think about this issue. Mahonia is a plant in many gardens in the UK and in many municipal plantings too, I've never heard of it being a problem there or here in Italy, but that is just the ussue we gardeners should take notice of; a plant that is absolutely inocent in one place can be a huge problem somewhere else. My thoughts, for what they're worth, would be that if you don't think the seedlings are escaping from your garden then I would keep them if you've noticed them growing in wild areas near you where they weren't before I would probably take them out. good luck. Christina

February 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterChristina

Deb I was thinking that if birds eat the berries seeds get scattered every where and you can't follow the birds and remove every seedling, I then see Carolyn has also mentioned this,
also even if the birds eat the berries if the plant is from china are the berries food for native USA birds? sorry I can't remember the name of the plant but there is an invasive over here that the birds love BUT the berries are not the right food for them, the berries of this invasive plant do not have sufficent protein for british birds either to make their long migration over water or survive our winters,
perhaps it would help you in your decision to find out if it really is good for native wildlife including birds whether seasonal visitors or indiginous,
you might find it helpful in your decsion if you could contact and talk to someone who understands the nature of the invasive problem,
last if you are going to worry about it then perhaps you already know what you will do it's just hard to make it final, Frances

February 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterFrances

Interesting. I don't think it is considered invasive here in BC. I have always thought it was a native plant too.

I too have mahonia - one of the reasons I like it is because the bees can find late winter pollen. However for that very reason, my mahonia has many berries. We have wooded property and I find seedlings all through the woods, which I pull up and destroy, but since I don't walk through all the woods surrounding our property I figure there are plants which I have not destroyed. I can only hope that they are in too much shade to bloom well. My solution is to remove the spent blooms before berry formation to limit its spread thoughout natural areas. When it is no longer my garden, I will remove the plants before I leave.

May 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMary

I am considering growing Mahonia here in Southern California, but read that it is invasive through its slow-growing rhizomes (roots). I am trying to create a wildlife habitat in my small yard (compared to other places in the U.S.) and the local water department has this growing in its drought-tolerant demonstration gardens. In fact, the mahonias (Berberis species) are being promoted out here because of their drought-tolerant nature. What a surprise to find that some states prohibit it!

I was thinking of growing this in a huge pot which is buried in the ground in order to contain the rhizomes. My thinking is that would keep it from spreading too far. I didn't even consider the berries being spread by birds. I guess that is possible but has it been verified by research/study? Just because the birds can spread the berries, doesn't mean they do. Possibly the acidic juices in their stomach may make the "ejected seeds" ungrowable. I don't know, but think we need more information on this theory.

I also have had Nandina domestica growing in the same spot for 30 years. It has not spread at all, possibly because of watering it so seldom. Do you think the same would be true of Mahonia? I also read that you could cut Mahonia back to the ground in the fall or winter to encourage fresh growth and help to control cabbage looper caterpillars which can disfigure the foliage.

March 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChris E

I finally bought my Mahonia [aquifolium] after talking to a horticulture instructor and a staff member in a local native plant nursery (who is also growing it at home). Neither of them thought the berries would grow after being through a bird's digestive system and the berries aren't too likely to be carried away by the birds. The birds would rather EAT the berries! The way it spreads is primarily by the spreading roots which have little "pups" pop up a short distance from the parent plant. So I think I will grow this in a wooden half-barrel, so the roots will be contained.

May 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChris E

It is definitely invasive in North Carolina. I see it all over Duke Forest and Eno River State Park. Birds take the fruit far and wide, so you may not know that your plant is the cause of an outbreak in the natural forest. I say take it out and find a native that feeds the birds just as well without damaging native forests.

March 31, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterZaksMom

I'd highly recommend removing the Mahonia and replacing it with one of many native species. You may be culling plants in your area but you can't stop birds from spreading the seeds. I've seen areas where Mahonia grows so thickly, one would need a machete to get through it. Please remove all invasives for the sake of local ecosystems.

October 16, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterNativesOnly

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