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Sunday, February 18, 2018

Marvelous Mahonias

Agarita showing its simple trifoliate leaflets.
One of the constant debates in the botany world is whether or not the genus Mahonia should stand alone or be included in the genus Berberis.  This discussion is based on the fact that several species in both genera are able to hybridize, and when viewed as a whole, no consistent separation exists except for simple versus compound leaves.  Taxonomy debate aside, the two most marvelous Mahonias in Texas are the well-known Agarita (Mahonia trifoliata) and the lesser-known Texas Barberry (Mahonia swaseyi).

Agarita with red berries.
Also called Agarito, Algerita, Laredo Mahonia, Laredo Oregon-grape, Trifoliate Barberry, and Texas Wild Currant, Agarita is a 3 to 8 foot evergreen, thicket-forming shrub with gray-green to blue-gray simple leaves composed of 3 leaflets.  Holly-like, each lobe of the leaflets ends in a sharp spine, and the woody stems are bright yellow inside.  Small yellow flowers appear in February and March, followed by red, berry-like fruits from May to July. Agarita grows throughout most of South-Central and West Texas, and prefers hills, rocky slopes, and open woods that have well-drained but rocky, limestone soils.  Songbirds and small mammals will eat the fruits, and use the prickly plant for cover.  In West Texas Agarita is used as a larval host plant for the Chinati Sheepmoth, one of our native wild silk moths.

’Texas Barberry has a more compound leaf structure.
Texas Barberry, also known as Texas Oregon-grape, is a 3 to 5 foot evergreen shrub with 3 inch long compound leaves composed of 2 to 4 leaflet pairs and one terminal leaflet.  The leaflet edges have spiny teeth and prominent veins on their lower surface.  From February to April yellow flowers appear, producing small orange-red fruits in early summer.  In addition to its leaf arrangement, Texas Barberry differs from Agarita in terms of range.  While it occurs in the Edwards Plateau and in one location in the Texas Panhandle, it is endemic to the Hill Country region, where it grows in full sun to light shade on ridges with rocky, limestone soil.  Texas Barberry is also rare and much less common than Agarita, and its foliage turns reddish-purple in the fall.   

While both of these species of plants are often grown for their spiny evergreen foliage and yellow flowers in early spring, their fruits are edible for humans (as well as wildlife) and are rich in vitamin C, and have been used to make jellies, pies, cobblers, and wines.  While edible, the fruits are highly acidic and should not be eaten raw in large quantities.  Additionally, the wood of these species has been used as a light yellow dye for wool.  

Whether you are looking for a barrier plant, wildlife cover, early bloomer, edible fruits, or just something evergreen that requires little care, look no further than our native, marvelous Mahonias