Mahonia aquafolium bonsai?

The Oregon grape (Mahonia aquafolium) is an evergreen perennial shrub. Many people consider it an herb due to the beneficial qualities that have been found in the roots, bark, and berries, in fact, Native Americans have made medicine out of it long before the Europeans got here. I don’t think anyone considers it bonsai though, or at least I’ve never seen any evidence of it.

Why not, though? They keep their leaves, the ones they shed turn a brilliant red, they have beautiful yellow flowers and they turn into edible (But absolutely disgusting) blue berries, hence the “Grape” part of the name. It is actually not a grape at all.  IMG_2270

Here’s my working area, Well, my co-worker Melinda and I share it, but this is where the magic happens. This is why it’s taken me a while for an update, It’s back to work and we are super busy this year. So I’ve kind of hit the ground running.


Speaking of hitting the ground running, today I’m gonna go for a twofer. These poor plants have been in the nursery hospital for about two years. The hospital is a shaded spot that gets peppered sunlight throughout the day along with special care and monitoring, but with not much improvement, I think its time for a closer look…


Well, this is about what I expected. This soil is no good, it was probably a typical nursery garden soil and that means it had a lot of organic matter. Over time microbes, detritivores (That is; worms, pill-bugs and spring tails), and fungi break down the soil and are actually essential for roots to thrive in, eventually though, in a potted environment it breaks down too much and turns into this… mud.


Nothing I cant take care of though, first step is to remove the old soil to get a good look at the root-ball.IMG_2278

I’m actually even more surprised that the roots are this healthy! This is just a testament to the willpower of these hardy shrubs.


I found some eggs in the soil! While I’m not an entomologist or anything, I’m just gonna go ahead and assume that they are good bugs.

Because I’m a positive person.


This root coming out of the trunk is obstructive to the visual look I’m going for, So I’m going to chop it off.


Here in my hand I hold the holy grail, Steer manure. I know what you are thinking; “Gary, that’s gonna turn the soil into acid!”

Relax, I’m only going to pepper it over the roots and the surrounding soil. This should help convince a fungus network to grow, as well as invite some of those worms we were talking about earlier. I have also switched the soil now, and I decided to go with basically 100% decomposed granite. I’m thinking that the massive amount of oxygen in the soil along with constant moisture and extreme heat is gonna be a good look on this fellow.

(Big reveal at the end)


On to the second one! Basically the same issue with the soil, like I sad earlier they had been in the hospital for a while, and before that they just didn’t get sold for some reason. So they have actually been in these pots for probably three years or more.


This one has created many offshoots, This is one of the ways they propagate in the wild, they send a secondary root out made for anchoring, but it reaches much farther then usual. Afterwords, an “offshoot” or “sucker” makes its way out of the soil. Contrary to popular belief this does not steal energy from the parent plant, but helps to further establish it and improve energy production.

Too bad I think they are ugly, so I’m gonna chop them off too.

First I have to get the rest of the soil off though.


YES! It’s even stronger then the first, hence the large amount of offshoots.


You can see here around my fingers that this offset is quite mature, it has started to grow its own secondary and hair roots, and is also SUPER tangled up


Another offshoot, this one found the drainage hole at the bottom of the pot and was growing from there.


Here are all the pups I removed, Even the ones with poor root structures should adapt readily to the new media and in time mature into full grown plants, all of which will have identical DNA to the mother.


These little guys thought they could sneak past me.

They thought wrong.


Not only will this root probably eventually turn into another offshoot, but it also now serves little purpose to the shrub. Only the fibrous hair roots are important to maintain when re-potting specimen for bonsai because these are the roots that are mainly responsible for hydration and resource collecting.


This is how the second one turned out. I’ve always love the Bunjin style of bonsai, but never seem to pull it off, I hope after a few years this could turn into an amazing specimen. I’ve also decided to mix some lava rock and old soil into this ones media, I’ll observe the two closely and see what soil does better


Here is the first one I worked on. Notice its mostly decomposed granite, It also has the steer manure and a tiny amount of old soil mixed into the substrate. When we keep some of the old dirt we are also ensuring that the micro-environment that was alive in the old soil does not have to start over from scratch, and it also makes the transition from one media to another a little easier for the plant. This horticultural practice can be applied on nearly all woody plants, as well as many cacti and succulents, the only difference being;

On the woody perennials you must water and keep the soil moist for the entire process.

On cacti and succulents you must withhold water for a few days before transplant and then again a few more days after. This allows any wound you may have caused to the root ball or plant itself to “callous” over the wound. You then returning to watering as usual.

Thanks for reading the post everyone, If you liked these plants you can find them for sale as well as many others at the Truckee River Rock and Nursery Co. off west 4th street.

I hope to see you soon!


Author: garesgarden

ISA Certified Arborist, Amateur Botanist, and future Agricultural Engineer.

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