Well, I finally broke down and bought a Mahonia 'Soft Caress,' this year's Hot New Plant. I had been fighting the urge since last fall, when I stumbled upon it at the J.C. Raulston Arboretum. In full bloom and loaded with happily buzzing bees, it was quite a sight to behold. At the time I had no idea it was the Hot New Plant. I just liked the way it looked.
'Soft Caress' is a compact evergreen shrub that sports spiky yellow blooms in late fall and dark purple berries a bit later. Unlike the Mahonias with spiny, holly-like foliage, 'Soft Caress' has foliage that resembles a Nandina, and it's not prickly at all. It is billed as hardy from Zones 7 -9, and since it likes shade, I thought it would be perfect for the spot once occupied by my late-lamented Daphne odora. But was it still too new?
I swore I'd never again buy a Hot New Plant, having learned the hard way that, with plants as with people, familiarity breeds contempt. Take Raspberry Dazzle dwarf crape myrtle. Six years after its big splashy introduction, people finally got wise to the fact that it had no intention of ever blooming. Too bad I bought three and finally had to rip them all out. Ditto Verbena bonariensis, which gets powdery mildew, falls over, and generally looks like Who Did It and Ran by the end of the summer. I came to loathe it.
With 'Soft Caress,' I had the sense to restrain myself and buy only one. I confess I was considering getting three, but fortunately the plant was so expensive at a local ooh-la-la nursery (a whopping $45 for a 3-gallon pot) that I high-tailed it out of there and headed over to the downmarket alternative, where the temporary insanity passed. There the owner, quite a knowledgeable guy, told me they don't carry 'Soft Caress,' adding rather ominously that he had real doubts about its winter hardiness. Next stop: back to the Raulston Arboretum to see for myself what the shrub looked like after one of the coldest winters in a long time. Here is what I found.
Not particularly pretty, are they? The small one looks particularly pained. But hey, they just came off a pretty hard winter, and they are clearly Not Dead. So it was on to Nursery Number Three, which also being of the ooh-la-la school, was positively awash in Soft Caresses. Hedging my bets, I picked one in the half-gallon size. Heartbreak hurts less at $19.95.
So here I am again, jumping on the latest botanical bandwagon after vowing not to. Of course I feel like a sheep, which is kind of humiliating. I used to consider myself an independent thinker, unmoved by fads and cheap marketing ploys. Bah. Or should I say, Baaaaa.
3/13/2014 09:29:44 am
True. But I sure hope Soft Caress doesn't pull a V. bonariensis on me. That would be very demoralizing.
3/15/2014 12:28:22 am
Especially when we have enough money to drown our sorrows with a new purchase!
10/27/2016 08:03:06 am
Here in Oklahoma City area, V. bonariensis does well and does not fall over and it is hot and humid here. I have never heard complaints of it falling over. I am about to plant a FREE Soft Caress and hope it will do better than the last free one I got. I do love their look.
3/13/2014 02:18:33 pm
I've fallen for the charms of seductive shrubs before, too. Case in point: 2 possibly dead loropetalums in my front garden that will probably keel over if we get another 8' of snow on Monday. I've heard good things about 'Soft Caress'. The Raulston shot looks pretty exposed. Perhaps a more sheltered site would help them look better in the winter.
3/14/2014 02:58:18 am
I hope you're right. The location I've picked is somewhat sheltered. I can't speak for for your lorapetulums, but I can tell you that they all looked like hell here in the Raleigh area, but are starting to bounce back. Definitely not dead. Here's hoping yours aren't either.
3/13/2014 05:04:50 pm
I've had a 'soft caress' (hate the name) in the ground for 4 years now (if memory serves). Granted our winters here in Portland are pretty mild but 12F low, under freezing day and night for a week, and 8" of snow plus an ice storm can test a plant...
3/14/2014 03:00:19 am
Hi Loree. Thanks so much for commenting on the blog. Your assessment sounds promising for the plant's long-term survival. I hope you're right. BTW, I hate the name too. Sounds like either a soap, a cheap perfume, or the title of a Harlequin romance.
3/14/2014 11:48:07 pm
You can imagine the comic misunderstandings taking place in nurseries all over America.
3/15/2014 12:24:11 am
Or a lawsuit.
3/13/2014 10:46:19 pm
I too have to own up to falling for the new 'must haves' and having to remortgage the house to do so! Plant of the Year, 2013 Chelsea Flower show, was Foxglove Illumination. Bought it, and it sulked for a LONG TIME during which I moaned and complained. Then suddenly it got going and by the end of the season I was in Love !
3/14/2014 03:02:29 am
I think I saw Foxglove Illumination in Fine Gardening magazine. I too loved it, but I haven't bought it - yet! Ironic about your Verbena bonariensis - yours looks good but doesn't self-seed, mine looked dreadful and self-seeded all over the place. Yes, even in the cracks in the pavement.
Good luck with your Mahonia. I tend to steer away from *most* of the hot new plants. And I had bad luck with a Southern Living gardenia...but that might have been my fault for zone pushing and/or expecting that I could successfully grow a temperamental plant like a gardenia! ;-)
3/14/2014 06:35:46 am
I'm prone to blaming myself for all plant deaths. But poorly performing ones or ones that don't live up to the hype? Not My Fault. Or yours, either.
You aren't alone! I eye those pretty pictures with the bright 'new' sticker and always feel tempted. Like you I have been burned by many a new plant introduction. Echinacea for one. Coreopsis for another. New introductions of both plants haven't been particularly hardy. It was a smart idea to go and check out the Mahonia 'Soft Caress' at the Raulston Arboretum. At least you know it can make it through a tough winter like the one we just had. I love the ferny foliage.
3/14/2014 09:23:28 am
Oh yes - the endless parade of new Echinaceas, none of which really hold up to the hype. I am hoping that my new Mahonia will live long and prosper, even if more crummy winter are in the cards.
10/27/2016 08:07:37 am
Same here with echinaceas, coreopsis and add gaillardias. I so love the many new coneflowers, but really have been good to tell myself to leave it there. Funny the common wild ones do so well here in Oklahoma, but not the fancy ones. I thought Cheyenne Spirit was going to do well, but it fizzled too after an initial good look.
3/14/2014 09:24:44 am
Thanks, Alain. The photos (even the professional one) don't do it justice. It was so gorgeous in real life. Perhaps you've seen in when you stay in British Columbia? I think it's hardy there.
Re-reading your post I was surprised by your comment on Verbena bonariensis which I had missed in my first reading. If there is one thing you learn reading gardening blogs is how plants react very differently to different environments. At our place V.B. is not only healthy but a bit of thug. The name of that plant always makes me laugh because "bonariensis" is so very close to the French "bon à rien" which means "good for nothing" - which is obviously what it is in your garden! (apparently bonariensis actually means from Buenos Aires).
3/22/2014 08:56:59 am
It's a thug here too. Its problem is that it looks terrible after the powdery mildew hits and the goldfinches topple the stems. The plant keeps soldiering on, though. Nothing can kill it.
3/14/2014 04:08:00 pm
Hey, I say if you like the plant and you feel like it's a good purchase, go for it! It does look like a lovely one. I like the blooms and the foliage--any plant that offers both is worthy of consideration. Enjoy!
3/15/2014 12:27:07 am
Thanks, Beth. I just hope it lives up to its hype. I'll be bummed if five years from now, we find out that it is subject to some awful disease, or we get sick of looking at it because it's in every yard.
Well, I can see why it's a hot new plant, over other mahonias. (I'm not a fan of mahonia.) This one is much prettier than the others. I've had some great luck with some hot new plants (my Incrediball hydrangea outdid itself), but they often aren't truly tested yet. Or they are tested in places where they can't quite stand up to North Carolina heat and humidity! I hope yours does well!
3/15/2014 01:31:10 am
Thanks, Indie. You are so right - so few of those tests seem to take into account the humidity and heat. That's why I was happy to see it at the Arboretum. Now granted, they provide better conditions than I probably will, but at least I have a fighting chance.
3/15/2014 02:50:23 pm
I succumbed last fall and bought three (gallon pots at the local big box center, not too pricey but not very cheap either!) Our temps dropped to less than 10 degrees twice, and now they look like those frost-bit ones you showed. However, they are, as you said, definitely not dead, so I am waiting for them to put out new growth. We shall see how well they recover and how well they stand the test of time. Other mahonias do well here, in fact, too well!
3/20/2014 01:52:50 pm
I'm so glad to hear that! I have just returned from a trip to a balmy climate and heard that Raleigh had ice and very cold weather while I was gone. My Mahonia Soft Caress looks just fine, thank goodness, and it had just been put into the ground. But only time will tell if I've just wasted my money.
How I would like to visit an ooh-la-la nursery awash in soft caresses! That made me laugh. Good luck with your possibly-iffy but deeply-desired new plant. We've all been there. (For me it is hot new coreopsis cultivars, all of which die flat dead and now I've ordered another new one for spring. Not as expensive as your new mahonia, but why do I keep doing this?)
3/20/2014 01:54:40 pm
Oh dear. I had heard that Mercury Rising actually lived up to its billing. How did that one fare, or did you not try it? I was actually contemplating it for my garden this year, as a substitute for that Chocolate Cosmos that looks so bad in the ground.
3/20/2014 01:55:45 pm
Sticker shock is indeed a deterrent, but then when you stumble on a cute half-gallon sample you think, why not? As Oscar Wilde said, I can resist everything except temptation.
Shrubs I usually go more conservative with, unless I've had friends recommend it....or it's on sale. That probably explains why my landscaping tends toward the boring side. My problem is more with the smaller stuff: I have to fight the urge to get one of each that I like, rather than several of the same thing.
3/20/2014 01:57:24 pm
At least with the smaller stuff, you haven't invested so much and can change it around when you get bored. With shrubs, it's a bit harder to justify ripping it out after 5 years, or discovering you hate it and can't stand looking at it anymore.
3/21/2014 02:05:23 pm
Very good question. In this case, only time will tell.
I must say I am a sucker for the pretty but untested selections. I'm originally from Australia and if those flowers were all over the plant, it would certainly favor our native acacia. That being said, I think yellow is my least favorite color. Granted you have to incorporate into any design as it works to bring all the colors together. Maybe it's the dandelion effect that clouds my appreciation of yellow in the garden.
3/22/2014 02:10:20 pm
It's funny how subjective color is. For a while I didn't like white flowers - can you imagine? Now I have come around to its uses. But not liking yellow must rule out so many plants, as it is surely one of the most common flower colors.
6/26/2014 03:41:19 pm
Read about the soft caress in S. Living Mag.
6/27/2014 02:11:49 am
Hi Ken. Thanks for commenting. I think you're right - best not to chance it in south Jersey. Aren't you zone 6b, anyway? Or do they claim you're 7A? Either way, winters in south Jersey are a lot colder for a lot longer than they are here in Raleigh, and Soft Caress took a beating after last winter even here. In my opinion, zone creep will take you only so far before you get the old smack-down.
9/12/2014 09:11:30 am
I am considering putting some soft caress mahonias on my covered and screened deck on the north side of my house - yes complete shade. Any opinions? or suggestions as to what shrub I could use. Have been using ferns, but they are somewhat boring.
9/13/2014 10:24:31 am
Thanks for your comment! I don't know about complete shade - partial, yes. Very few things like complete shade, as you know, except maybe acuba or ligustrum, which would probably be too big. Why not give Soft Caress a try? If it doesn't thrive, you can always move it, right?
12/12/2015 01:56:58 pm
Love the soft caress; here in Southern California I have to watch for snails...not my favorite critter. So far my 4 plants are doing well.
4/2/2016 07:49:24 pm
Grow it as an annual. I bought 2. They are now 3 years old and I am pulling them out. After mild Memphis winters, they look like heck. They do not die, but never recover. I have given them 3 years to acclimate, but they look like just like the "after a bad winter" picture posted on this site.
4/3/2016 08:48:50 am
Thanks for writing, and sorry about your loss! Oddly enough, I can report that my Soft Caress is still doing just fine. Yes, we had a very mild winter this year (maybe even milder than yours in Memphis), but even after last year's very cold and icy winter, it did fine. Mine is planted in almost full shade and in a protected site right up against the foundation of the house. Maybe that helps it survive. Or maybe it's a fluke and it will be dead next winter. Who knows?
10/27/2016 08:13:37 am
Was surprised to read a 2016 update. Good to know your plant is doing fine still.
2/22/2019 10:50:33 pm
I know this is an old thread but I would like some updates on this plant. I just bought 3 plants without doing much research on them but after researching them other than this thread all I find is advertising hype. I live in zone 8 hot and humid summers. Thanks
2/23/2019 07:24:10 am
Good news - mine is still doing fine. I'm zone 7b but we act more like 8a. It's a slow grower but it has survived a really cold winter a few years ago and it hasn't gotten diseases or been eaten by the swarms of deer that live in my neighborhood. Truthfully, the flowing has been a bit sparse, but mine is in a lot of shade. I like the look of the leaves, though, so I'm ok with that. I hope this helps.
2/23/2019 08:36:35 am
Good to know. I am really enjoying your blog great stuff.
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The Galloping Horse Gardener is a native New Yorker who packed it in in 2005 to live under the radar in Cary, North Carolina. In 2014, she removed to a new secure location somewhere in Raleigh.
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