This evergreen is a native of China and brought to the United States in 1848 as an ornamental. In 1848, after the Opium Wars in China had ended which opened up trade, Robert Fortune first found this plant. An interesting story surrounding his first encounter goes like this: Fortune saw the leaves of this plant peeking above the walls of an enclosed courtyard of someone’s home. He didn’t know the people, but apparently that didn’t matter to him. He opened their front door and walked through the house to the courtyard where he considered digging up the shrub, but felt it was too large to survive. In the next town he offered a reward to anyone who would bring him smaller specimens he could carry with him. In short order he received three separate shrubs.
This interesting plant is recommended in the southeastern United States as a wildlife attractant, but it is that wildlife that it attracts that has contributed so heavily to its becoming an almost invasive plant there! The fruits are abundant and are greatly relished by the birds, which eat it and spread the seed in their excrement. So this once garden plant is now naturalized throughout the south. The Southeast Exotic Pest Plant Council has it listed as a Rank 2 NIS plant (significant threat). This means that it poses a threat of becoming invasive, but as of yet is not spreading easily into native plant communities.
The leaves on this plant are very attention-grabbing. They resemble holly leaves in basic shape and in having points on the leaflets, but they are opposite unlike holly leaves that are alternating. The other major difference is that these are not opposite leaves, but leaflets…which make them all together one very large leaf! The flowers are an interesting yellow, growing abundantly in large clusters and appearing in late winter. Walk past on a crisp winter, very early spring day and get a whiff of citrus in the air…those are the Mahonia flowers!
The fruit which follows start out green but swiftly turn bluish black with a grayish bloom. If you can beat the wildlife to them (birds will strip the plant bare in a few short days) then they are actually edible. There are many seeds wrapped up in very little flesh, but the taste has a very refreshing, slightly acidic taste. They have been recommended added to cereal. They ripen in April and May and provide Vitamin C.
Since this plant is in the Barberry family of plants it has Berberine in the rhizomes which make it a bitter tonic with antibacterial effects. A decoction of the root and stems has been used to treat pulmonary tuberculosis, recurring fever, and cough in rundown body systems, rheumatoid arthritis, backache, weak knees, dysentery, and enteritis.