This species is scarcely distinct from Mahonia japonica[
], differing mainly in its broader leaflets which are placed closer together on the stem and its erect flower racemes[
]. It is often treated as a subspecies of Mahonia japonica, despite the fact that Mahonia bealei is found in the wild whilst Mahonia japonica is a cultigen and not a wild plant[
]. Plants of the two species are often confused in cultivation[
]. Many seedlings that have been raised from cultivated plants are hybrids between the two species[
The genus Mahonia is not universally accepted. Many botanists prefer to treat it as part of Berberis - as per the Flora of N. America[
]. However, although they are very closely related (and there are some intergeneric hybrids), from the point of view of the gardener they are quite distinct genera. We are therefore following the treatment in the Flora of China[
] which treats them as distinct. There is, however, at least one major revision (of the Chinese genera) currently (2016) in preparation and we will review the position of Mahonia once we have seen that revision[
Berberis bealei Fortune
Mahonia japonica bealei (Fortune) Fedde
Mahonia bealei is an evergreen shrub or a small tree, usually growing 0.5 - 4 metres tall but occasionally reaching 8 metres[
The plant is harvested from the wild for local use as a food and a medicine. An important medicinal herb in China, where it is often cultivated and is also sold in local markets. It is often grown as an ornamental in gardens..
All parts of the plant contain the alkaloid berberine - this is most concentrated in the roots, stems and inner bark, and least concentrated in the fruits. In small quantities berberine has a range of effective medicinal applications but, in excess, can cause vomiting, lowered blood pressure, reduced heart rate, lethargy, and other ill-effects.
The fruit of most, if not all, members of this genus are more or less edible and can be eaten in quantity since the levels of berberine in the fruit are very low.
E. Asia - southern and eastern China
Forests, forest margins, weedy slopes, streamsides, roadsides and thickets; at elevations from 500 - 2,000 metres[
|Cultivation Status||Cultivated, Ornamental, Wild
Mahonia bealei is very winter hardy, when fully dormant it can tolerate temperatures down to about -20°c[
], though the young growth in spring is much more sensitive and can be damaged by temperatures around 0°c.
Thrives in any good garden soil[
]. Grows well in heavy clay soils. Succeeds under quite heavy tree cover[
], often thriving in dense shade[
]. Prefers a semi-shaded woodland position in a damp, slightly acid to neutral humus-rich soil[
The flowers are sweetly scented[
Hybridizes freely with other members of this genus.
Some Berberis/Mahonia species (especially Berberis vulgaris) harbour the black stem-rust fungus (Puccinia graminis Persoon). This is a major disease of wheat and barley crops and can spread from infected barberries to the grain crop. The sale or transport of susceptible or untested species of Berberis is illegal in the United States and Canada[
]. This species is resistant to infection by the fungus[
Fruit - raw or cooked. A pleasant acid flavour, it is nice when added to muesli or porridge[
]. Unfortunately, there is relatively little flesh and a lot of seeds[
]. The fruit is about 10mm long and 6mm wide[
], it ripens in April/May and if the plant is in a sheltered position the crops can be fairly heavy[
Mahonia bealei is an important and commonly used herb in traditional Chinese medicine, where it is used interchangeably with Mahonia fortunei. The stem and roots are said to have the properties of "clearing heat and dry dampness, purge fire and remove toxins" and have been used for the treatment of conditions such as dampness-heat diarrhoea, dysentery, jaundice, red urine, red painful swelling eyes, toothache caused by stomach fire, sore and deep-rooted boils, swelling and abscesses[
A decoction of the root and stems is antiphlogistic, antirheumatic, depurative and febrifuge[
]. A decoction is used in the treatment of pulmonary tuberculosis, recurring fever and cough in rundown body systems, rheumatoid arthritis, backache, weak knees, dysentery and enteritis[
The decoction is applied as a wash to treat eczema and dermatitis[
]. Combined with tea oil, it is used as a coating on burns[
The root and root bark are best harvested in the autumn[
The leaf is febrifuge and tonic[
A decoction of the fruit is used in the treatment of insomnia, dizziness and tinnitus[
Mahonia species have a long history of medicinal usage, with several members of the genus being commonly used in traditional medicine and also in modern herbalism. They are employed in the treatment of a wide range of conditions and have, in particular, been demonstrated to exert good efficacy in the clinical treatment of dysentery, internal and external haemorrhage, acne vulgaris and chronic pharyngitis amongst other diseases. Phytochemical research into this genus has resulted in the identification of more than 150 chemical constituents, amongst which alkaloids are predominant. The isolated compounds and crude extracts have been shown to exhibit a wide spectrum of in vitro and in vivo pharmacological effects, including antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, hepatoprotective, antioxidant, antimutagenic and analgesic properties[
Berberine, an alkaloid that is universally present in the rhizomes and stems of Mahonia species, has been shown to have a marked antibacterial effect[
] and is also used as a bitter tonic[
]. Since it is not appreciably absorbed by the body, it can be used orally in the treatment of various enteric infections, especially bacterial dysentery[
Berberine has also shown antitumour activity[
The plant should not be used with Glycyrrhiza species (Liquorice) because this nullifies the effects of the berberine[
Seed - best sown as soon as it is ripe in a cold frame[
]. It usually germinates in the spring[
]. 'Green' seed (harvested when the embryo has fully developed but before the seed case has dried) should be sown as soon as it is harvested and germinates within 6 weeks[
]. Stored seed should be sown as soon as possible in late winter or spring. 3 weeks cold stratification will improve its germination, which should take place in 3 - 6 months at 10°c. Prick out the seedlings when they are large enough to handle and grow them on in a cold frame for at least their first winter. Plant them out in late spring or early summer.
Division of suckers in spring[
]. Whilst they can be placed direct into their permanent positions, better results are achieved if they are potted up and placed in a frame until established[
Leaf cuttings in the autumn.