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Soft Caress mahonia magically blooms, bringing in the honeybees

The Soft Caress mahonia has a wispy fine leaf texture and reach close to 4 feet in height.
The Soft Caress mahonia has a wispy fine leaf texture and reach close to 4 feet in height. TNS

Honeybees coming out of nowhere is always thrilling, even more so in the winter. Such is the case with Soft Caress mahonia which has quickly become one of my all-time favorite shrubs with shocking yellow blooms when nothing else seems to be happening, and yes, bringing in the bees.

Soft Caress mahonia is one of thrilling Southern Living Plant Collection offerings that seems to offer the landscape a 12-month appeal with its wispy fine-leaf texture, dazzling yellow flowers that bring in bees followed by dark blue fruits that bring in birds.

The name Soft Caress tells you this is not your typical mahonia. Indeed it is different with thread like foliage, soft to the touch and bearing no spines. Botanically speaking it is Mahonia eurybracteata subsp. ganpinensis “Soft Caress”.

It gives a magical almost fernlike texture to the garden encouraging you to consider it to be anything other than mahonia. When you see those wonderful flower and delightful fruit loved by birds you instantly recognize it.

We had several at the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens and I was quick to plant it at my hillside home in Hamilton, Ga. Each December as if it was a special holiday gift of nature they send up their glorious spikes of golden yellow flowers bringing in an abundance of pollinating bees.

You’re starting to find it easily at garden as part of the Southern Living Plant Collection. But it is not just a hit in the United States it also garnered the 2013 Plant of the year at the Royal Horticultural Society’s Chelsea Flower Show.

Soft Caress is cold hardy from zones 7-9, tough to around 0 degrees, so might not do well in areas of the U.S. with cold winters, although we’ve had an unusually rough winter in the South and I’m delighted to report all is well. They will reach about 4 feet in height and almost as wide. At the Coastal Georgia Botanical Garden my favorite combination had them with Kaleidoscope abelias and spreading plum yew. I am growing mine with Japanese tassel fern.

They thrived in partial shade, some getting brief direct sun, but high filtered shifting lighting light would be just perfect. The soils should be fertile and well-drained so take the time to bed prep by incorporating 3 to 4 inches of organic matter.

Dig the planting hole two to three times as wide as the rootball but no deeper. You goal is to have the top of the rootball even with the soil surface. Place the plant in the hole and backfill with soil to two-thirds the depth. Tamp the soil and water to settle, add the remaining backfill, repeat the process and apply mulch.

Soft Caress is not a high maintenance plant, pruning out any old ugly or damaged canes as needed or to encourage new young shoots and bushiness. In the woodland garden combine with hostas, ferns, and the repeat blooming Encore azaleas. Clusters of 3 seem to create a most magical appearance.

Norman Winter is a horticulturist and author of “Captivating Combinations: Color and Style in the Garden.” Follow him on Facebook @NormanWinterTheGardenGuy