By Jim Leser
This week I thought it was time to present to you another of my favorite plants that grace my landscape. I will be showcasing Fremont’s barberry, Mahonia fremontii. It also goes by the synonym, Berberis fremontii. It was named to honor John Fremont.
This attractive evergreen shrub has leaves made up of 5-9 leaflets. They are spiny and look a lot like holly leaves. New leaves that emerge are reddish to purple in color, transitioning to light green. As they age, they become grey-green.
Small, flagrant flowers are in clusters and have yellow petals. Fruits are grape-like appearing at first as yellow-green but maturing to a purple color. The Zuni people crushed these berries as a purple coloring for their skin and for ceremonial objects.
This shrub can grow quite large, up 12 or so feet high. Its native range in the southwest includes New Mexico, Arizona, Eastern California, Utah and Western Colorado. It can be found in pinyon-juniper woodlands, desert grasslands, hillsides and canyons.
This shrub is extremely drought tolerant and is hardy to USDA zone 5. It needs full sun, well-drained soil and needs infrequent watering. I water my mahonia every 75 days or so, but I am sure it could go longer between waterings. And if you live in deer country, the good news is that deer leave it alone. In fact, I’m not sure any pest or disease bothers this shrub.
So there you have it. A shrub that requires very little attention, has few if any pests, has pretty yellow flowers in the spring followed by purple berries and its holly-like leaves persist year-round providing winter interest. I purchased mine from Chelsea Nursery in Clifton as a one gallon plant in 2008. You may find it at other local nurseries as well. Happy gardening!
Jim Leser retired to Cedaredge in 2007 after a career with Texas A&M University Extension in entomology. He is a member of the Cedaredge Tree Board and a Colorado Master Gardener.