‘Soft Caress’ Mahonia — Plant of the Year

‘Soft Caress’ mahonia is great for containers. Here it’s used as a focal point where two paths meet. Photo: Roger Foley. Garden design: Scott Brinitzer, Arlington, VA.

When the most prestigious flower show in the world names its Plant of the Year, Grumpy takes notice. He takes even more notice when that plant happens to belong to our Southern Living Plant Collection. The winner? ‘Soft Caress’ mahonia.

The flower show I’m talking about is the Chelsea Flower Show put on in London each spring by the Royal Horticultural Society. Chelsea represents cutting-edge gardening at its most mind-blowing. The people who run it give their children Latin names. (“Finish your bread and Marmite, Tulipa, so you can go play with your cousin, Macrocephala.”) They think about plants 24/7, 365 days a year, which is why when you go to the show, you see hundreds of spectacular scenes like this one.

Image zoom emThis spring bulb display at Chelsea was no doubt inspired by Grumpy’s own garden. Photo: RHS Images./em

And out of all of the most exciting new plants in the world, which one did the RHS pick as its top new plant for 2013? Southern Living’s ‘Soft Caress’ mahonia. Woo-hoo!!!!

Why Did ‘Soft Caress’ Win? No, it wasn’t because Grumpy and royalty go hand-in-hand. And it wasn’t because Grumpy bravely flew shotgun for Prince Harry during his recent stint in the Royal Air Force. It was because ‘Soft Caress’ mahonia combines many attributes sought after by intelligent and tasteful gardeners today.

‘Soft Caress’ is evergreen, compact (about 3 feet tall and wide), and easy to grow. It needs little pruning and is hardy to about 0 degrees. It likes part sun or shade. Candles of bright yellow flowers stand atop the deep green leaves in winter. And unlike the prickly foliage possessed by other forms of mahonia (aka “grape-holly”), that of ‘Soft Caress’ is spineless, soft, and feathery. It reminds you of bamboo.

Image zoom em’Soft Caress’ combines with cast-iron plant and purple oxalis in Linda Guy’s Charleston, SC garden. Photo by Steve Bender./em

‘Soft Caress’ does beautifully in both containers and borders. Try combining its finely textured foliage with that of coarse, large-leafed plants like hosta, hydrangea, Japanese aucuba, heuchera, or cast-iron plant. Your design skill will be so acclaimed that the RHS is bound to give you a free ticket to next year’s show!

Where to Find a ‘Soft Caress’ No, not there. Get your mind out of the gutter. You can procure ‘Soft Caress’ mahonia at better garden centers near you. to see which garden centers nearby carry our Southern Living Plant Collection. Jolly good!

Soft Caress Mahonia

Soft Caress Mahonia (Mahonia eurybracteata ‘Soft Caress’ PP20183) from the Southern Living Plant Collection is a truly exceptional shade plant! Chinese Mahonia was introduced years ago, and provided a solution for shaded gardens everywhere. However, the sharp foliage of the Chinese Mahonia requires gloves or a particularly careful touch, which makes pruning difficult. The “Soft Caress” removes this potentially painful aspect of the Mahonia entirely, with its soft feather-like foliage. The greenery resembles a fern frond type of growth pattern, and sprouts richly colored leaves that can range from light green to a dark blue-green.

Early in Winter, this variety develops brilliant and fragrant yellow flowers that crown the evergreen foliage. Following the blooms are clusters of silver-blue berries that are an unexpected change of pace for this one-of-a-kind, fascinating plant.

It reaches a mature size of 3′ H x 3.5′ W. Because of its dwarf size, it won’t go wild and take over your landscape. Meanwhile, a naturally compact nature will leave pruning completely optional.

Try it in a mass planting in a shaded spot you don’t want to worry about maintaining.

Furthermore, it’s perfect for Asian-inspired gardens. Otherwise, try it as a short border in a shade garden, or as an accent in a container planter. You really can’t go wrong with this Mahonia!

Soft Caress Mahonia Care

Hardy in USDA Zones 7-9, down to 0° Fahrenheit when established.

One of the most attractive aspects of the Soft Caress Mahonia is its ability to thrive in both Part Sun and Full Shade, an unusual feat for most flowering shrubs.

Plant in well-draining acidic soil for best results. Alkaline soils may lead to an iron deficiency and yellowing leaves. Therefore, planting in acidic to neutral soil is important.

Water 2-3 times a week during the first growing season. After your plant has a couple growing seasons under its belt, supplemental watering is only necessary in times of intense heat and drought.

Fertilize in early spring with a balanced, slow-release acidic plant fertilizer.

How to Plant:

  1. First, find an appropriate planting location and stage where your plant(s) will go.
  2. Dig a hole three times as your plant’s root ball.
    • The hole should be deep enough that the plant sits even with or slightly higher than the ground around it. However, dig a shallower hole if your soil has mild drainage problems. Mound the soil up to the base of the plant.
  3. Next, mix your native soil with rich garden soil to provide extra nutrients for your growing plant.
    • Alternatively, if your soil is clay-rich, we recommend mixing in pine bark with your native soil at a ratio of about 1:1.
  4. Place the plant in the hole and fill the hole back with the soil mixture.
  5. Apply 3-4 inches of mulch around the base of your plant to help it retain moisture throughout the year.
  6. Deeply water your new planting to settle the soil and hydrate your plant.

Spacing Your Plants

For a seamless planting, plant 2-2.5 feet apart. Otherwise, space them 3.5+ feet apart for space between plantings.

Recommended Companion Plants for the Soft Caress Mahonia

  • Try this variety with some other shade-friendly plants, like the Everillo Carex and Florida Sunshine Anise. Both of these varieties have bright golden foliage that really brightens up shady spots. The Mountain Snow Pieris also handles shade well and features some gorgeous white bell-shaped blossoms in early spring.
  • For partial shade plantings, consider planting it with some Hydrangeas, such as the Big Daddy Hydrangea or Bloomstruck Hydrangea. Their wide leaves and large rounded blooms contrast beautifully this Mahonia’s feathery foliage.

Still looking for inspiration? Check out these Shade Garden Ideas.

Frequently Asked Questions:

“Is Soft Caress Mahonia deer-resistant?”

Traditional Mahonia are very deer resistant because of their thorny nature. The Soft Caress does not have thorns, therefore, it is not as deer resistant. However, it’s not a deer’s favorite snack. They will likely only nibble at it if other food is scarce.

“Why is my foliage turning yellow?”

  1. Your soil pH may be too high. When this happens, it can create an iron deficiency in your plant because it’s unable to absorb nutrients properly. The result is that leaves may turn yellow and fall off over time. Pick up a soil pH test and take a sample from the base of your plant, several inches deep. If it shows up decently over a pH of 7, you should consider supplementing your soil with a soil acidifier, such as elemental sulfur.
  2. Your Mahonia might be getting too much sun. Mahonia can handle some sun very well, in fact, they look great with a couple to a few hours of direct sun. However, they aren’t Full Sun plants. If yours are getting too much direct sunlight, they’ll fade to a yellow-green to yellow and eventually, the plant might expire. Move them or figure out a way to give them more shade.

“Why isn’t my Mahonia flowering?”

Mahonia can bloom from late fall to late winter, depending on the weather you’re having and where it’s planted. So our first suggestion would be to consider that it hasn’t gotten around to it yet, or it may have bloomed already if you recently bought the plant. However, if fall and winter came and went without any flowers, there’s likely something else at play. Dehydration is a common cause for a lack of flowers. Ensure that your plant is staying properly hydrated throughout the year. They need water to produce flowers and will often drop their flower buds if they are dehydrated for too long.

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It’s our responsibility to ship healthy, quality plants for every order we receive. And we take this responsibility seriously! We carefully select plants that we wouldn’t hesitate to plant in our own gardens. Then, we water them, securely pack them for shipment, and send them on their way to you. All of our plants are shipped in pots with soil, we never ship any plants bare-root. If you aren’t happy with your order when it shows up, give us a call at 1-866-618-5659 or email us at . We’ll do whatever we can to make it right.

Plant details and applications

How tall does Mahonia ‘Soft Caress’ get, and when does it bloom? This is a difficult question because the answer depends on the conditions under which a plant grows, the soil type and its geographical location. Is the plant growing in a sheltered spot or not? Is it in full sun or partial shade? Is it planted in sandy soil or clay? In the Netherlands or Spain? In a pot or on the patio? Here are some ways to use it.
In the garden
Except for trees that are visually dominant, a plant will have an average lifespan of eight years in a garden. Under the right conditions, ‘Soft Caress’ will reach a height of about 1.5 metres and a width of 1 metre after around eight to ten years.
It is important to give ‘Soft Caress’ a sheltered location, in other words, not unprotected from the full blasts of an easterly wind. In countries where hard winter frosts are the norm, the plant will definitely have to be protected with some frost-protection fleece, even if the plant is in a sheltered position. In countries with somewhat milder winters, the same rule could be applied if a hard freeze is expected but a sheltered spot in the garden beneath some trees or in a south-facing position will probably be enough. In southern European countries and in large parts of England, Ireland and Wales, the plant will generally have no problems with frost.
Depending on light and temperature factors in the summer, ‘Soft Caress’ will start flowering in August or as late as October. The plant produces lemon yellow flowers and bluish-black berries. The warmer the temperatures, the shorter the plant will be in flower, but the average flowering period lasts around two to three weeks.
The mahonia shrub can easily tolerate high temperatures. A sunny place in the garden is no problem. Although the colour of the leaves will fade slightly during the summer, it will return over the course of the year (see the tips about fertilising on the ‘Care’ page). The mahonia shrub will very easily tolerate a place in shade or partial shade. Its finely textured leaves make it a beautiful choice for planting in clusters.
What makes this mahonia shrub so special is that its leaves are free of spines (see the ‘Interesting Facts’ page). You can easily see this by scrolling your mouse over the pictures on the side of this page to enlarge the image. Because the plant is spineless, it can be planted anywhere in the garden!

In a pot
Mahonia ‘Soft Caress’ is a perfect plant for the patio where its fern-like leaves will add an elegant touch. If the potting compost becomes somewhat dry between waterings, it can easily tolerate this because its leathery leaves will keep it from drying out quickly. Even so, it is still important to give it sufficient water during its initial growth period and flowering period.

Designing with Mahonia ‘Soft Caress’

(Berberidaceae Mahonia Eurybracteata Soft Caress’ PP20183)

Fabulous textural evergreen for the shade garden unlike anything I’ve seen. Like all Mahonias it’s tough as nails, drought tolerant and evergreen. Unlike most Mahonias it is thorn less and soft to the touch. It’s an elegant shrub that can add fine texture, shine and year-round interest in your dry shady areas.

‘Soft Caress’ Mahonia won the 2015 Plant of the Year at the Chelsea Flower Show. So, you know it offers many desirable attributes for landscape design. It’s a hardy evergreen that looks fresh, interesting and glossy year-round and it’s compact 3ft size fits almost anywhere.

Landscape ideas for ‘Soft Caress’ Mahonia:

This Mahonia has feathery foliage and richly colored leaves ranging from dark blue-green to light green. It is perfectly suited for an Asian themed garden. Try it under upright Japanese Maples. The feathery foliage also compliments plants with bolder leaves like large hostas. Try Hosta’ Frances Williams’ or ‘Olive Bailey Langdon’. To bring in more color try Hydrangeas, hellebores and large heucheras like ‘Sweet Tea’ or ‘Georgia Peach’. For pops of graceful yellow try Japanese Forest grass.

A dramatic combination could include ‘Angyo Star’ Fatshedera as a low climber, Spiders Web’ Fatshedera and Acuba. Acanthus Mollis ‘Bears Breeches’. All are evergreen, have similar growing needs and would create a lush garden in shade.

For a Jurassic look try Farfugium Japonicum, Gunnera, or if your site has a boggy area try Darmera Peltata. Just be sure to site the Mahonia in the drier area. It doesn’t like standing water.

There are many Rodgersia varieties that would be bold perennial companions with large flower stalks.

For interesting groundcovers try Epimediums. There are many choices with different colored flowers, evergreen or deciduous and some with bold leaves. Ajuga genevensis ‘Carpet Bugle’ Flowers all Summer with gentian- blue 6-12” flower spikes. This variety is NOT invasive or stoloniferous like the common Ajuga Reptans. It forms a dense matting mound to about 2 feet wide. Very useful along pathways or front of the border. It would look nice surrounding your Mahonia.

Mahonia ‘Soft Caress’ looks wonderful in containers as your thriller plant. A useful formula to create exciting containers is to include a thriller, filler and spiller. Spillers could include: Dichondra ‘Silver Falls’ or for an exciting color combination try any of the ornamental sweet potato vines.

There are a number of varieties to choose from, including:

    • My favorite- Marguerite –chartreuse, bold foliage with heart-shaped leaves.
    • Blackie – Nearly black foliage with serrated leaves creates a wonderful color contrast. It’s a vigorous grower.
    • Sweet Carolina ‘Purple’ – with dark purple foliage and smaller tubers. This variety is a less vigorous grower suitable for smaller containers.
    • Tricolor – Another less vigorous grower that has multicolored and variegated small pointy leaves of green, pink and white. Suitable for smaller containers or where you want to add other things to the container.

For a Mediterranean container that can tolerate less water, you could try a trailing variety of Rosemary.

For a filler companion to ‘Soft Caress’ Mahonia try the very dwarf, evergreen, weeping ‘Purple Pixie’ Loropelatum. It’s compact size with dark purple leaves, weeping habit and pink flowers would be a vibrant choice, suitable for year-round containers.

Other evergreen dwarfs could include ‘Little Flames Leucothoe. A very dwarf selection that forms a cute bun shape. New leaves look like little red flames. A charming dwarf evergreen with slow growth. Another dwarf, evergreen to consider, with colorful new growth is “Burning Love’ Leucothoe. It has a lacy appearance and would combine nicely with the bold leaves of ornamental sweet potatoes.

Design possibilities are endless as it’s compact enough for a container yet large enough to be used as a foundation plant. In Autumn or early Winter, bright yellow candles of flowers arise from the bamboo-like foliage and slowly develop into blue/ black berries extending the Winter display.

This Mahonia has the ability to thrive in both part sun and full shade, with virtually no maintenance. As a bonus it’s said to be deer resistant. It’s hardy in Zones 7-9

How will you use ‘Soft Caress’ Mahonia? Do you have this in your landscape? I would love to hear how you incorporate it in your design, or better yet … pictures!

Author: Stephanie Beach

Soft Caress Mahonia is one of the most exciting Mahonias to come along in years. While many of the selected forms of Mahonia get quite large, Soft Caress stays very compact growing to only 3 or 3.5 feet in height by 3 feet wide, or even smaller with pruning. The beautiful yellow flowers that Mahonias are so cherished for appear in early winter on Soft Caress to add a splash of color to the winter garden. The fine feathery foliage fits well in a Japanese style garden and is reminiscent of bamboo foliage. Plant Soft Caress Mahonia in shade to part shade in well draining clay soil for best results. Performs very well on the north side of a house or among other taller plantings. Plant with Maidenhair Fern and Red Huckleberry for a beautiful Northwest Native looking garden.

Latin Name: Mahonia eurybracteata ‘Soft Caress’
Site and Soil: Shade to part shade in well draining clay soils
Pollination Requirements: Self-fertile
Hardiness: Mahonia Soft Caress is hardy to minus 5° F.
Bearing Age: 1-2 years after planting.
Size at Maturity: 3 – 3.5 ft. in height. by 3 ft. wdie
Bloom Time: December
Ripening Time: June
Yield: 10+ lbs.
Pests & Diseases: Mahonia is not bothered by pests or diseases in our climate
USDA Zone: 7-9

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