How to Identify Mahonia Aquifolium

Written by carol sarao
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How to Identify Mahonia Aquifolium
Mahonia aquifolium features bright yellow flowers in early spring. (mahonia image by Edsweb from

Mahonia aquifolium, an evergreen shrub, is known by a dizzying collection of common names, including Oregon grape, hollyleaved barberry, Oregon hollygrape, Oregon grapeholly and the mountain grape. Mahonia is popular as an ornamental shrub in gardens, and also can be found growing wild in part sun to full shade in woody areas. Although technically a barberry shrub, Mahonia aquifolium looks very similar to American holly, and is often confused with it. Distinguishing between the two is made simpler by the fact that the colours of the fruits and flowers are very different. Armed with a little information about the foliage and blossoms of this colourful shrub, you should be able to identify Mahonia aquifolium with little difficulty.

Skill level:
Moderately Easy


  1. 1

    Examine the holly-like leaves of the plant, which in the summertime will be dark, glossy and compound, and 2 to 3 inches long. Look closely to identify the leaf's midrib--which resembles a line right down the centre of the leaf--and the spines around the edges of the toothed leaves. Leaflets in groups of five, nine and 13 are another positive indication of Mahonia.

  2. 2

    Identify a Mahonia aquifolium in the spring by examining the foliage and observing, and sniffing, the flowers. The blossoms will be bright yellow--with each flower actually consisting of a dense cluster of small flowerets--and fragrant, while the flowers of the American holly are a subdued greenish-white.

  3. 3

    Identify a Mahonia aquifolium in the fall by examining the foliage. The new, emerging leaves of the Mahonia aquifolium will be reddish, immature leaves will be greenish-bronze and last season's growth will be a deep burgundy shade. American holly, on the other hand, features green, glossy leaves all year round.

  4. 4

    Examine the berries when you are trying to identify a Mahonia aquifolium in late summer and fall. Berries are produced in blue-black clusters that have a frosted appearance, like that of blueberries or grapes. American holly features berries that are bright red.

  5. 5

    Take note of the part of the country you are in when trying to identify Mahonia aquifolium. In contrast to holly, which grows primarily in the eastern and southeastern parts of the country, Mahonia is found in the Pacific Northwest as well.

Tips and warnings

  • The flowers of the Mahonia aquifolium are edible, and can be eaten in salads or brewed into a tart, lemonade-like drink. Berries are edible too, although tart, and make delicious jellies and jams. Have an expert confirm your identification of Mahonia aquifolium, however, before you eat any part of it.

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