The plant: its name, interesting facts, and botanical details

Plant hunter, Ozzie Johnson: ‘In 1990, I was travelling through Japan where I visited many little nurseries. One of these was selling mahonia seedlings that had very narrow spineless leaves. I asked the grower what it was, but he didn’t know. He called his seedlings 'Narihari'. I bought a seedling and took it back to the States.’

‘Eventually, the plant started to produce flowers and berries. I collected the seeds from this plant and sowed them myself. From these seedlings, I selected the most vigorous plant with the most beautiful leaves and the best roots.’

‘I called this cultivar 'Soft Caress'. During that same year (2001), Flora of China published the scientific name of this mahonia shrub: Mahonia eurybracteata ssp. ganpanensis. Since 'Soft Caress' was a cultivar, its full name became: Mahonia eurybracteata ssp. ganpanensis 'Soft Caress'. The original plants, however, came from China where Mahonia eurybracteata is found growing in the wild.

The scientific name for the mahonia shrub is a Latinised version of the name of an Irish botanist: Bernhard MacMahon (1775-1815) who had to flee to the United States because he had participated in a rebellion against the English. After moving to live in Philadelphia, where he established several botanical gardens, he wrote The American Gardener’s Agenda that was published in 1807 and reprinted many times.

The genus Mahonia is just one of the genera, along with Berberis (Barberry), Nandina (Heavenly Bamboo) and Epimedium (Barrenwort), that belong to the family Berberidaceae.

Mahonia shrubs typically have spines on their leaves. A spine is a randomly placed sharp protrusion formed by the epidermis. This is not the same as a thorn (roses also have spines instead of thorns). Mahonia ‘Soft Caress’, however, has no spines. For this reason, its leaves closely resemble those of Heavenly Bamboo (Nandina).

The multi-flowered inflorescence produced by Mahonia ‘Soft Caress’ is a centripetal inflorescence in that the flower opens from the outside inward and upward from below.

The Dutch name chosen for this cultivar is Threadleaf Mahonia.