Winter Sun in Bloom

by Alec McCarter  December 2002


We are now at that time of year when cloud and rain will soon replace the unreliable sun.  No matter.  Every year since Peggy planted it, and starting in early October, Mahonia x “Winter Sun” has brightened the dark days with great clusters of bright racemes of tiny flowers.  Like the rays of the sun, each shaft of yellow radiates outward from the center to make a wide disc of light.  Each disc is held aloft by sturdy stems well-clothed in long, prickly leaves of dark and shiny green.  It has already started to bloom and it will continue through the winter and into March.  Unlike the sun, its light is unaffected by weather.  It survived the freezes of November 11, 1985 and February 1, 1989.  Under the heavy, crushing snows of December, 1996, it bowed, but did not break.  It bent to the ground, but when the snow melted, it sprang back up and once again its cheery bloom spread warmth and joy.  In contrast, some of our rhododendrons suffered badly.  “Cotton Candy” broke off at ground level.  A low and spreading Acer japonicum was split from top to bottom requiring surgery to put it back together.


But Mahonia “Winter sun” is more than just a replacement for its namesake.  Situated close to the bird-feeder, it has provided a refuge and shelter for countless juncos, sparrows and house finches.  Except, when it was young and thin, its sturdy growth and prickly leaves have discouraged predators.  When it was just a youth, a Cooper’s hawk burst recklessly through the shrub, clawed-feet first.  There was a flurry of feathers and leaflets, but startled birds at the feeder escaped.  Anna’s hummingbird finds nourishment in the nectar of the sweet-smelling flowers.  Hordes of bushtits send down showers of tiny yellow petals as they forage for something edible along the clusters of flowers.  One winter, a wood warbler (Townsend’s) eked out a living for months using “Winter Sun” as a source of food and shelter.  The bird was perfectly camouflaged with markings of brilliant yellow, green, and dusky olive matching the shrub’s flowers, leaves and dark shadows.


When at long last the stalks of flowers have done their duty, dark-blue berries with a heavy bloom enlarge and ripen along each stem.  If these are not picked, they soon attract hordes of robins, including mottled-breasted young.  Last spring, a hungry flock of cedar wax-wings joined them and soon no berries were left for us to pick.


These berries, if cooked and squeezed through a muslin bag, make a dark-red juice, sweet and sour.  It will not gel without added sugar and pectin, but then it makes a delicious spread for bread.  An acquaintance makes wine from the juice, and by freezing it to remove water, concentrates it to make a delicious liqueur.


After the berries, a new delight is the tuft of bronzy foliage that sprouts from the top of each terminus of a trunk.  Each new leaf presents ten or so pairs of leaflets along the stem terminating in a single leaflet.  And each tuft is comprised of ten or more leaves.  It is a magnificent sight.


“Winter Sun” is a cross between M. Iofariifolia and M. japonica (sometimes named Berberis instead of Mahonia).  A similar plant is M. media x ”Charity”.  At one time, we had both, but ”Charity” died of thirst and too much sun during a long hot and dry summer.  Its requirements for health appear to be different from those of our native M. aquifolia and M. nervosa.  Some shade and more water might have kept “Charity” alive.  Never mind, “Winter Sun” is as big a plant as the scale of our garden will permit – another would be too much.


We do still have M. japonica and it is thriving.  It is definitely japonica and M. bealei – its leaves are long and narrow and its flowering racemes are long and loose, even pendulous, in contrast to bealei’s shorter, thicker and wider leaves and leaflets.  Each year, japonica becomes larger and more beautiful.  Like “Winter Sun”, it brightens each day and persists through the winter.  These are two shrubs that we could not be without.


Reprinted with thanks from January 2002 University of Victoria Finnerty Gardens Newsletter.