Unsung Hero of Winter Gardens: Mountain Mahogany

Cercocarpus intricatus Plant Select

Cercocarpus intricatus in the wild. Photo: Gary Epstein

Winter is a great time to look closely at dry gardens and landscapes to critique and make lists of needs for spring planting. Would the garden be more attractive if there were more plants with winter interest? Would birds scratching at the ground be safer from predators with the addition of native shrubs? Start looking for ideas in surrounding native habitats to find plants  that would enhance more cultivated landscapes. In many of the states west of the Mississippi, we’re blessed to have about ten species and subspecies of plants known as Mountain Mahogany (Cercocarpus).

One of the unsung heroes of the group is littleleaf mountain mahogany (Cercocarpus intricatus). Found in the wild primarily in western Colorado, Utah, northern Arizona and Central California, this densely branched slow-growing shrub may be the perfect choice for many situations. It’s pest-free, seldom browsed by deer in cultivated situations, and requires almost no care once established. In the nursery or garden center, the plants are often passed over for flashier, showier options, but once in the landscape, these plants flourish and grow in even in the harshest conditions.

Narrow leaves that are 1 to 1.5” long are held year-round on greyish, twiggy stems. In spring the plants are densely covered with small, fragrant reddish-yellow flowers. Once the flowers are pollinated, long-tailed seeds cover the plant producing a feathery, ethereal “glow” until wind disperses the seeds.

The name “mahogany” comes from the reddish color of the inner wood. The genus Cercocarpus comes from Greek terms meaning “tailed fruit”, and the species name means “intricately-branched.” The genus has recently been placed in Dryadoideae, a subfamily of the rose family (Rosaceae). All of the members of this subfamily have root nodules that host nitrogen-fixing bacteria, an important characteristic for plants growing in soils with low fertility.

Cercocarpus intricatus at Conservaton Gardens at Northern Water, Berthoud CO. Photo: Gary Epstein

Cercocarpus intricatus at Conservaton Gardens at Northern Water, Berthoud CO. Photo: Gary Epstein

Wildlife benefits

The dense branching habit offers excellent cover for songbirds year-round, and the small, flowers that appear for two to three weeks are an excellent source of nectar for bees in spring.

Growing tips:

Littleleaf mountain mahogany is a slow-growing broadleaf evergreen shrub that requires no additional irrigation once established (about two years or so). In wetter conditions the plants will be lusher with a more open habit; plants are dense and shorter in very dry sites. Plants can easily be pruned or even sheared to shape if desired.

View the plant profile here.

 At a glance:

Height: 4-5 feet

Width: 3-4 feet

Hardiness:USDA zones 3-9

Growth habit: dense branching with upright form in cultivated landscapes, more rounded in the wild

How to Use: As a small-scale hedge or specimen in drier gardens or landscapes.

Culture: Clay, loam, or sandy soil; Needs full sun, but requires no additional irrigation once established.

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