If I had to name my number one shrub for a wildlife garden it would be Mahonia x media “Charity”. It gives year-round interest and cover, while its pollen, nectar and berries feed a wealth of birds and insects.
It’s a bushy, upright, evergreen shrub with dark-green, spiky, glossy leaves that are a pleasant light red as they come through in summer. In autumn and winter it bears yellow flowers (apparently fragrant, although I have never noticed this myself!) which are followed by blue-black berries.
It is sometimes called Oregon grape in the USA (although that name seems too broadly used) or lily-of-the-valley bush in the UK.
It likes moist but well-drained soil in shade or partial shade and thrives in my clay soil on a slope below overhanging ash trees. Mine needs little maintenance but grows like mad to about 12 feet high in a few years and then has to be hacked back down again – it has survived this three times in about 10 years and still keeps coming back.
Most wonderful is the sunshine it brings into the winter garden and the boost it gives wildlife through the dark months.
Blue tits feed on the nectar, or perhaps the pollen, and it is particularly attractive to red admiral butterflies deep into winter – I have seen them there on Christmas Day.
Once the flowers have faded the berries start to ripen and are pretty well polished off by blackcaps, blackbirds and song thrushes. It’s just as well, as the fully laden bunches of ripe berries weigh down the heads of the Mahonia and they could do with some lightening up!
Planted on a boundary, the Mahonia’s spiky leaves can also be useful in keeping out intruders.