Bring in the bees with the magical blooms of ‘Soft Caress’ Mahonia

By Norman Winter

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. Its shocking yellow blooms that appear when nothing else seems to be happening truly bring in the bees.

‘Soft Caress’ Mahonia is one of the thrilling Southern Living Plant Collection offerings that seems to offer the landscape 12-month appeal with its wispy fine-leaf texture, dazzling yellow flowers that attract 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 flowers 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 centers 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. Our winter has been pretty brutal, 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 Gardens, 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 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 root ball, but no deeper. Your goal is to have the top of the root ball 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 three seem to create a most magical appearance.

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