We are used to seeing new colors in well-known plants, or smaller versions of garden favorites, but it is not often that something completely new comes into our gardens. Something we haven’t seen before, and that gives us a chance to bring a different and novel look to our planting arrangements. When it does, we naturally get excited, and that is exactly what happened when we saw the Soft Caress Mahonia. What’s that, I hear you say, I know Mahonia – it’s a spiny shrub for a wild garden, right? Yes, it is, but the Soft Caress Mahonia is radically different, and we know you are going to love it.
The Soft Touch Mahonia is that most valuable of garden plants – one that thrives in partial shade, and even grows well in full shade. It grows to around 3 feet tall and wide, so it is perfect for filling beds at the foot of trees and large shrubs, nestling happily in the shade they cast. There its evergreen foliage brings year-round interest, and its bright yellow flowers in mid-winter are a wonderful lift at that most colorless of seasons. Vigorous, easy to grow, not particular about soil – this truly is a dream plant. Besides using it for those shady beds, it looks beautiful in planters and pots too, alone or mixed with summer-flowering plants. The delicate foliage is a perfect contrast to shrubs with large leaves, like rhododendrons, or with azalea, boxwood, cherry laurel, and other shade-loving plants. It is perfect in an Asian-style garden, or a woodland garden too.
Growing Soft Caress Mahonia
The Soft Touch Mahonia develops into a mound of soft, thin leaves that look a little bamboo-like, and that feel feathery and delicate, without a trace of prickles. It will grow to around 3 feet tall, with several stems in a clump, and spread to 3 feet wide, or perhaps a little more. It grows vigorously, and this plant can reach that size within 3 or 4 years, in most gardens. There are several main stems rising from the ground and growing to about 3 feet tall. Lower down on each stem 2 or 3 shorter side stems, about 18 inches long, grow off the main stem. This creates a lovely, dense, bushy plant that fills the spaces in your garden very well.
What appear to be the leaves are slender, 1 to 3 inches long and no more than ¼ of an inch wide. A closer look will show you that these grow off a stem which is actually the true leaf, about 7 or 8 inches long and 4 inches wide, but divided into 10 to 15 leaflets – those thin ‘leaves’ that we see immediately. The overall effect is of a soft mound of slender leaves, with an almost bamboo-like look.
The second great thing about the Soft Touch Mahonia are the flowers. These arrive in winter, usually between mid-November and mid-February, although it may be earlier or later, depending on your climate. Established plants may also produce some flowers at other seasons. The small, but very fragrant, flowers are bright, canary yellow, and they are clustered in arching flower spikes, each 7 or 8 inches long, packed with about 50 tiny flowers, and with 5 to 8 spikes in each cluster. These emerge slowly from the end of each branch, expanding gradually until the lowest begin to open, after which it takes 10 days or so for each spike to fully flower. Overall, flowering lasts for at least a month, and then the flowers are replaced by spikes of small, blue-black berries with a soft, grey powdery surface, lasting into fall.
Planting and Initial Care
The Soft Caress Mahonia grows well in partial shade to bright full shade. In cooler areas it will also grow in full sun, and everywhere in deeper shade too, although there it will be not as densely leaved. It grows well in most soil types, preferring moist, but well-drained heavier soils, such as clay loams. In containers and planters use outdoor potting soil, not plain garden soil, and make sure your containers have drainage holes. This plant has no significant pests or diseases, and it grows vigorously and easily. If some stems become long and lose their lower leaves, prune these ones out, after flowering, at the ground, to encourage new shoots to develop, keeping your plants bushy and full. No other care is needed for this fabulous new addition to your garden.
History and Origins of the Soft Caress Mahonia
The plant group called Mahonia has about 70 species in it, and they can be found all through eastern Asia and the Himalayas, as well as in north and central America. The most well-known is the Oregon Grape, which has very spiny leaves, as do all the others. In 2000, Karen Stever, a partner at the plant nursery ItSaul Plants, in Atlanta, Georgia, sowed some Mahonia seeds, not even knowing what exactly they were. Among the seedlings was a unique plant that lacked the spines on the leaves that the other seedlings had. She grew and propagated it, and in 2009, after extensive testing, it was patented with the name ‘Soft Caress’. Later, botanists identified it as a form of the rare Mahonia eurybracteata, which grows only in parts of China. It was greeted with joy by the gardening world, and in 2013 it won the very prestigious ‘Chelsea Flower Show Plant of the Year’, from the Royal Horticultural Society in the UK.
This unique plant is in high demand around the world, and we have been so fortunate to find some great specimens. We urge you to order right away, because our stock is dwindling fast, and it will soon be gone.