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Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2008
By LINDA INOKI
This handsome oriental shrub grows in a similar fashion to the nanten (Nandina domestica, or "heavenly bamboo"), and since it has prickly leaves like a holly it is known as hiiragi-nanten, meaning "holly-nandina." Both Mahonia and heavenly bamboo belong to the Berberidaceae (Berberis) family of plants, which includes evergreen shrubs from North America, China and the Himalayas. The American species (M. aquifolium) is also known as the Oregon grape, after its edible purple berries that were once gathered for food. The Japanese Mahonia (M. japonica) also produces attractive berries which ripen from sea-green to purple-black in late spring. However, it is in winter that the plant is most striking, when its long leaves are topped by racemes of fragrant flowers whose scent is similar to Lily of the Valley. Each tiny, pale-yellow flower is shaped like a miniature daffodil, with six sepals and six petals. The plant-hunter Robert Fortune sent the first samples of M. japonica to England in 1849, where it became an exotic addition to fashionable Victorian shrubbery. The plants are still very popular in temperate gardens around the world. I planted a single specimen in my garden, and on a cold winter's day it is a joy to see its clear-yellow flowers and cascades of evergreen leaves. However, brushing past the plant is a prickly business, as each leaflet ends in a very sharp point!