Mahonia – smell of an angel’s breath

Each year I set the intention to gather specific plants, and each year I miss some. Miss their gathering time.

That’s one of the frustrations of foraging. 

With so many plants out there, sometimes there isn’t enough time to gather them all when they are at their best.

Yet out of this frustration comes forth a delight. You’ve got to love paradox.

The realisation that I may have missed the best time to harvest the plant. 

It is an excellent lesson in patience and becoming present in each moment.

Realising I must wait another year to gather the plant’s bounty again makes me chuckle.

How different from the way our culture relates to food?

If you forget something from the shop, you can always go back. And the forgotten item will be on display, even if it is not in season.

Foraging has taught me many life lessons. It goes way beyond putting food on the table and is instead a lesson in living.

I love how nature is such a wise teacher.

This week, I want to encourage you to step outside and find a plant that is starting to grow.

Trees are usually good now.

I want you to take notice of this plant every time you walk past it.

Watch it through its lifecycle.

What do you notice?

Try picking it at different stages. Then open a notebook and start recording its taste, texture, and anything else that you notice.

Is there a specific time when its flavour comes into its own?

I had that happen to me last week.

I was walking back with my wife at 11.30 at night when the most exquisite smell hit me.

I stopped, then walked backwards, trying to identify which plant it was.

Lo’ and behold, I realised this divine smell was coming from a Mahonia.

I had never smelt it like this before.

So my wife and I pushed our faces as far into the yellow flowers as possible. Avoiding, the holly-like leaves. Then breathed in lungfuls of ecstasy.

I’ve nick-named Mahonia; Angels Breath.

Try tasting the flowers in January.

Think sherbet. First, you experience sweet honey nectar and then a delicious lemony tang.

I ponder what I can do with them beyond popping them into my mouth.

If you have experimented with Mahonia flowers, why not let me know? 

I’d love to hear what you’ve done with them.

Until next time.

Mahonia japonica identification
Mahonia japonica


  1. Mahonia…. ‘Oregon grape’…
    Try pulling a blade f grass and poke it into the center of the flower…
    Mahonia flowers are sensitive and the stamens will close over your blade of grass. all of the beberris family do it as far as I know…

  2. I have a large Mahonia beside my front path, it’s been flowering for about a month now and I expect it to carry on until March ~ truly stunning smell, best at dusk and after dark. I shall try a flower tomorrow ….. The other perfumed plant I love is Sarcococca ~ there is a large one in a garden I work in, you can smell it from 50 meters away 🙂

  3. Don’t take Mahonia flowers! It is a very important bee and moth food at a time when they have very little to forage and it may be a choice between life and death for them. Be an angel and enjoy the perfume, but leave the flowers!

  4. I saw a whole hedge of Mahonia recently and didn’t know they were edible! Unfortunately they were along the border of a petrol station so maybe not a good place for picking!

  5. I also purposely planted the ‘Winter Sun’ variety for bees I keep in a top bar hive as this is one of the best for forage during this season, but I’m sure they won’t mind if l now try those flowers myself! 🙂 Nicotiana is wonderful night scented too.

  6. Thanks for this posting. Unfortunately the Mahonia in my garden went a bit wild and kept popping up everywhere I did not want it to be. Also at the time a bit dangerous for the children when they were younger. The beautiful hybrid growing where I did want it to be split in the dry summer a few yrs ago followed by a really cold winter. It finally succummbed, but yes it did scent the garden, I never tasted the flowers.
    Those of the Mountain Laurel send a beautiful perfume across the path in the winter months, but I will not taste them.

  7. I’ve never eaten mahonia before (flowers or berries) but my friend says in Canada they call it Oregon grape and her Canadian uncle makes jam out of the berries (or was it jelly?). What I do know is that the blue tits love the flowers on the one in my garden and the blackbirds love the berries. Please remember to leave some food for the birds!

    • Tried the jam, to produce it you need the unripe (green) berries, they contain pectin to transform the ripe berries to a jam, it tastes similar to strawberries crossed with black berries.

  8. I use the fruit with strawberries to make jam: I firstly make a purée of the mahonia berries then freeze it to wait for the strawberries to put in an appearance later in the year. The mahonia really intensifies the flavour of the resulting jam and gives it a deeper colour.

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