Q: We found a couple of these growing under the pines on our property. Any idea what it might be or how it could have gotten there? One is about five feet tall.
A: When I was ten I found the exact same plant growing in a thicket near our house. My grandmother, the flower gardener of the family, guessed that it was a holly of some kind.
In the years since, I’ve become more knowledgeable. It’s not a holly, despite the spines on the leaves. It’s a mahonia, sometimes called “Oregon grape”, due to the purple, grape-like seed pods in late spring.
Birds love the seeds and spread the plant far and wide…which is why you found the plants volunteering in your landscape. Mahonia grows in dense shade (good!) but it does tend to invade natural areas (bad!).