As the taxonomic revision hasn’t been widely accepted yet, please note the following changes:
Mahonia japonica = Berberis japonica
Mahonia oiwakensis ssp. lomariifolia = Berberis oiwakensis ssp. lomariifolia
Mahonia x media = Berberis x hortensis
As autumn goes from its ‘pretty’ phase to its ‘cold and dark’ phase, to be followed by the sometimes beautiful but often dismal days of winter, there is a need to fill our gardening days with joy and life. While we were spoiled by the bounty of life from the late spring right through to mid autumn, with a succession of flowers and fruits to enjoy as we please, we assume that the joy will never end. Of course it does end, and every year we’re grateful for those strange plants that do their flowering at the colder and darker time of the year.
Berberis x hortensis might seem to be a little bit of a waste of space in the summer but during the winter you’d be hard-pushed to find a more striking and yet resilient plant. Berberis x hortensis ‘Charity’ has been with me through my horticultural career, a staple of winter gardens and an all-round fine plant, but this plant is a relatively new in the grand scheme of things.
It all started in either 1950 or 1951 when John Russell of Richmond Nurseries of Windlesham in Surrey, UK, travelled to the Slieve Donard Nursery in Newcastle, County Down, Northern Ireland. While visiting the nursery John Russell came across a large batch of what is now called Berberis oiwakensis ssp. lomariifolia. Russell bought 100 of these young potted seedlings and took them back to his nursery. In either 1952 or 1953 Sir Eric Savill and his Head Gardener Mr Hope Findley visited Richmond Nurseries and selected three of the seedlings from the Slieve Donard batch with interesting foliage variations to take back to The Savill Garden at Windsor Great Park.
The seedlings started to flower in the autumn of 1957, with one being quite noticeably different in flower to B. oiwakensis ssp. lomariifolia. This was shown publicly for the first time on the 22nd of October 1957 at the RHS show at Vincent Square, London. The plant, now given the cultivar name ‘Charity’, was clearly an intermediate hybrid between B. japonica and B. oiwakensis ssp. lomariifolia. These species grew together, or at least very close to each other, at Slieve Donard which supported the identification. On the 27th of January 1959 it received an Award of Merit and on the 27th of November 1962 it received a First Class Certificate.
Thus Berberis x hortensis ‘Charity’ started on its way to being a very popular evergreen shrub in British gardens, and probably the best-known ‘Mahonia’ until the smaller Berberis ganpinensis ‘Soft Caress’ (then known as ‘Mahonia eurybracteata ssp. ganpinensis ‘Soft Caress’) was launched in 2013. Other B. x hortensis cultivars have been raised since, including by Lionel Fortescue at The Garden House, Devon, who repeated the cross to confirm the parents, although it’s not unusual for B. x hortensis cultivars to appear more similar to one parent or another. It’s also worth noting that B. x hortensis cultivars can vary by their flowering time, with B. x hortensis ‘Charity’ and ‘Hope’ flowering potentially over a four month period from late October onwards while ‘Lioned Fortescue’ starts early (October/November) but doesn’t last as long and ‘Underway’, raised by Norman Hadden flowers during November and December.
B. x hortensis is a large shrub, especially when you consider how small modern gardens can be. It has a potential height of 4-5m (to around 15ft) and spread of 3-4m (around 12ft). You can prune B. x hortensis but please put some thought into it; I see plants brutalised all too often! Its bold foliage is a little too sharp to be sited near paths etc, but where the plant can be accommodated it makes a spectacular plant. I’ve found it to be fine in full sun or partial shade but less keen on being too wet or too dry.
It’s worth mentioning perfume here. Some ‘Mahonias’ have a reputation for having scented flowers but B. x hortensis isn’t one of them. There is a perfume if you’re lucky enough to find it in the flowers but the scent is not strong, indoors or out. Other B. x hortensis cultivars, not least of all the rather lovely compact cultivar ‘Winter Sun’ that was raised by Slieve Donard Nursery at the same time as ‘Charity’ (same batch of young plants or a generation earlier or later?) which has a delightful perfume. I suspect there might be two things at play: 1 is the artistic licence of nurseries keen to sell their plants, and 2 is that there is a suggestion that some B. x hortensis cultivars are mixed up in cultivation. Despite not having a strong fragrance B. x hortensis ‘Charity’ is still a very fine plant.
Note: there is a letter in the Journal of the RHS for 1969, p500, from John Russell himself that tells us that his trip to Slieve Donard Nursery was made in 1960-61. While this is usually the sort of gem of information that you’d want to rely on when researching plants I have my doubts; it would mean that B. x hortensis ‘Charity’ had reached flowering size and received an AM within 1-2 years!