Floridata Plant Encyclopedia

A Floridata Plant Profile 662 Mahonia bealei

Common Names: leatherleaf mahonia Family: Berberidaceae (barberry Family)
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leatherleaf mahonia flowers
The leatherleaf mahonia's fragrant yellow flowers brighten up winter days to the delight of both bees and people.


Leatherleaf mahonia is an evergreen shrub with large, pinnately compound leaves. It grows in an upright, open and loose, multi-stemmed clump 4-6 ft (1.2-1.8 m) tall and 3-4 ft (0.9-1.2 m) wide. It can get as large as 10 ft (3 m) tall and 8 ft (2.4 m) wide. The erect stems are stiff and unbranched, and the leaves come out in horizontal tiers. The leaves are about 18 in (46 cm) long with 9 to 13 stiff, sharply spiny, hollylike leaflets. The leaflets are dull grayish blue-green above and pale yellowish green below, and about 2-4 in (5-10 cm) long and 1-2 in (2.5-5 cm) wide. The terminal leaflet is larger than the lateral leaflets. The fragrant lemon-yellow flowers, appearing in late winter, are borne in erect racemes 3-6 in (7.6-15 cm) long. The fruit is a berry, first green, then turning bluish black with a grayish bloom. They are about a half inch long and hang in grapelike clusters.


Mahonia bealei is native to China.


Light: Leatherleaf mahonia grows well in shade to partial shade, especially in zones 8 and 9. It may not flower if it doesn't get at least a couple hours of sun each day, though. Best position is one that gives 2-4 hours of morning sun. Leatherleaf mahonia does not like hot, midday sun in the southern zones, but does well in full sun in zones 6 and 7. Moisture: This mahonia likes a moist, well-drained soil. Water when dry. Hardiness: USDA Zones 6 - 9. Propagation: Can be started from cuttings. Also propagated by seed which will germinate without any pre-germination treatment if fresh.
leatherleaf mahonia
The coarse bluish foliage of leatherleaf mahonia adds texture and contrast to mixed shrub plantings, here combining with yaupon holly and azaleas in Jack's front yard.
leatherleaf mahonia berries
The ripe berries are very blue and very deliciously appealing to many kinds of birds.


The shade tolerant leatherleaf mahonia is a popular shrub in the southern US and similar climates, producing dense clusters of very fragrant, golden yellow flowers. These showy blossoms stand above its evergreen foliage in late winter or early spring when few other plants are blooming. Use this spiny, gangly shrub on the north side of a building, where shade excludes most flowering shrubs. You can plant a leatherleaf mahonia in front of a window, and still be able to see out between the vertical stems and horizontal layered foliage. It often is used as a border or foundation plant as well. The coarse texture and clumsy form may not suit well in a neat, formal garden, but leatherleaf mahonia can be pruned to a single-stemmed specimen. To keep a denser form, prune out a few of the tallest stems each spring to encourage new stem growth from the base. Prune out a few leaves to accentuate the layered effect. With creative pruning, leatherleaf mahonia has a dramatic silhouette.

The fruits are much relished by birds, and are usually devoured within days of ripening. Leatherleaf mahonia can be grown in containers and can be used as a large houseplant.


Leatherleaf mahonia was once believed to be just a form of Japanese mahonia (M. japonica). There are about 70 species in the genus Mahonia, named for the nineteenth century American horticulturist, Bernard McMahon. Oregon grapeholly (M. aquifolium) and Chinese mahonia (M. fortunei) are similar species widely in cultivation. The barberries (genus Berberis) and the familiar heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica) are also in the barberry family.

Steve Christman 3/18/00; updated 2/21/03, 2/8/04, 12/29/04

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Mahonia species profiled on Floridata:

Mahonia bealei

( leatherleaf mahonia )

Mahonia fortunei

( Chinese mahonia, Fortune's mahonia, holly grape )

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