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Monday, January 3, 2011

The under-appreciated Nandina



It happens quite often - a plant becomes so over-used that it loses interest for gardeners - we seek out different and more exciting plants when the very best ones fall out of favor and sadly, attain the dreaded status of "common." Abelias, Rose of Sharon, weigela, come to mind, but one of the most familiar has to be Nandina domestica.

A native of China and Japan, Nandina (also known as Heavenly Bamboo), is a tough cookie, immune to disease and undesirable to insects. It will grow almost anywhere and it is attractive in all seasons. The feathery, delicate, evergreen leaves, turn fiery red or orange in sunnier locations and elegant panicles of ivory flowers in spring give way to brilliant red berries in late fall that hold up well into springtime.



If nandinas get a bad wrap, it could be because of the lanky appearance they get when left unpruned. The common nandina can attain an 8' height and the lower stems often loose their leaves. To keep them looking their best, cut back the oldest canes all the way to the ground in early spring. A neglected shrub can be rejuvenated by cutting the entire plant to the ground. Lower growing varieties are available such as "Harbor Dwarf", a variety that stays below 2 feet. I've grown this one and it is just as dependable as the common taller variety.

When we moved into our house in 1992, the only shrubs on the property were nandina and abelia planted, hit and miss, around the foundation on the north and south sides of the house. The abelia was pathetic looking and eventually shovel pruned. The nandinas, on the north side, looked good and with a little fertilizer and pruning, they have been beautiful every year.

I often hear that nandina is invasive in the wild but I don't believe it poses a serious problem in urban areas. I've never seen it stray in our garden and oddly, birds don't seem to like the berries. I've read that the berries are poisonous to cats and grazing animals but again, our cats have never expressed interest in eating them. I often use the berries as decorations and even as an accent around holiday desserts (like my yule log) but I always warn people not to eat them. You never know what people will do!



Text and photos by Phillip Oliver, Dirt Therapy

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28 comments:

  1. I am not sure I have ever seen a garden here without a Nandina. I have heard the bit about them being invasive, but I think it is more a case of being overplanted.

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  2. I've read that Elizabeth Lawrence was a big fan of Nandina.

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  3. They are fairly common here, and I've thought about adding one in my backyard for a little winter interest. I would've thought birds would love those berries. They look so pretty with snow on them.

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  4. I'm with you...I LOVE Nandina, such great interest all year long, especially in fall and winter with the reddish foliage.

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  5. Moving from the zone 3 tundra of northern NY, I had no idea what this plant was on my property. I finally figured it to be a Nandina from a nursery in my area. I was thrilled with the winter berries that first year and have found like you said that it is a very hardy and desirable plant to have. I've decorated my house...told the pup not to touch and know that next year there will be plenty more berries to come. Thanks for the pruning info Phillip!

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  7. I have one of these Nandinas in my garden. I really like it. It grows in a difficult shady place under a maple tree. It does all you say except the berries don't turn red. They are a sickly yellow. Hmmmm I wonder why. I will see about pruning and feeding it. Maybe that is what it needs to make red berries.

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  8. I love Nandina and have often wondered why so many plants are referred to by their common name--but not Nandina.

    Heavenly Bamboo brings visions of exotic locales...

    BTW, I understand Nandina are acid loving plants, and mine have always fared wonderfully with a little Azalea formula.

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  9. Our garden had many nandinas when we moved here, and I've moved several of them to new locations. They're so forgiving ... Years ago I pulled up a baby, stuck the bare root into clay, ignored it for a while, and now it's thriving. They droop a little, the leaves seem to die, but they always come back. I love them.

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  10. Les, I think you right about that.

    Sweetbay, I didn't know that. I will have to pull her book out and see what she had to say about it.

    Catherine, I think birds do eat the berries but not mine.

    Thank you Brooke!

    Lisa, I bet you have the yellow berried nandina which I forgot to mention in my post. It is hard to find. Pam Harper says that the yellows are not as pretty as the red.

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  11. Shoalanda, I like the name Heavenly Bamboo too. I have no idea why people prefer the name nandina.

    C.C., I planted one at my mother's house and it is doing great in her heavy clay soil.

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  12. Your pictures are beautiful. I have long wanted Nandina, especially Harbor Dwarf, and your photos show me why. But up here in New England it would be minimally hardy. If it did survive it would not be evergreen like yours, but is supposed to get very nice fall color and then drop all leaves. It would be a die back shrub here. I'm so tempted to experiment with it!

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  13. Phillip, these pictures and your words describing the nandina are breathtakingly beautiful. You write so well.

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  14. What a beautifull plant! You say it is invasive in areas like florida? Do the seeds take easily? I'd like to grow one where I am, in a hot climate, but without the humidity. Would it be okay in a pot?

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  15. It's a favorite plant of mine, as well, and tough as nails in Atlanta. Everyone in Georgia refers to it as "invasive," but I've never had an issue. I'm one of those who likes the old fashioned, unnamed "domestica," and can't get enough of it, particularly in winter.

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  16. Nandina sure looks beautiful covered in snow, with the red berries peeking out. I've never seen it here in central Ohio, but I now see it's zone listed as 4 to 10. Hmmm, wonder why no one grows it here.

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  17. I do love Nandina in the winter! And branches of it are beautiful in big vases.

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  18. Great images. Unfortunately, here in Charleston it does get carried into the wild. I have seen it first hand. In urban settings it does not seem to be a problem, but stray to far one way or the other and you will see it start showing up in the wild.

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  19. Those berries are so bright! Gorgeous!

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  20. It does look lovely covered in snow~that splash of red berries is perfect. It's not my favorite and would look totally out of place in my garden of mostly natives;-) gail

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  21. You know I was looking at the newer ones in the nursery just yesterday, apparently the big hype is 'less berries'. Who would want a Nandina with less berries? I happen to love them!

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  22. Phillip,I have this plant,but my does not produce any berries. Do you have idea, what's wrong with it? Sometimes a few but small.

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  23. This is a real pretty plant, though I understand some think it is over-planted. I think it's not hardy here, or else is marginal, because I don't believe I've ever seen it, just heard other gardeners in warmer climes, like yourself, talking of it--okay, posting about it. :-) Happy New Year to you from frozen Nova Scotia.

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  24. My neighbor across the street has some and they are so gorgeous right now...they looked like they were all decked out for the holidays..and still do:-) Last year I planted some dwarf nandinas and they aren't supposed to get large. I loved this post when I read it on the Alabama Gardener Magazine site. Tell me how you're doing this. Are you going to do your posts here first, then upload them there? Or did you write it there first then add it here? It's too nice not to add to your own blog, for sure;-) I'm trying to decide if I should post them twice or should I write a whole separate post for them. What are your thoughts? Thanks. It's exciting to be joining the blogging community over there at SBS;-)

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  25. Annanas, I've never seen nandina in a pot but I'm thinking it would be okay, especially the dwarf varieties.

    Msrobin, I read that the hardiness zone was 6 but I could be wrong about that.

    Anna, does yours get sun?

    Jan, I've sent you a note via FB.

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  26. Last fall we moved into a house that has a Nandina on each side of the front porch. They both turned reddish orange and both get bright sun. One made the pretty flowers but the other (smaller) did not. And neither one makes berries. We haven't tried to prune them because we don't really know what we're doing. What should I do to make them both flower and produce the beautiful berries??

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  27. Grows in full sun in rather dry and hot spot during summer (East Coast). Maybe not enough water to produce nice berries? How much moisture does it need?
    p.s.Japanese plant Nandina by front door for Good Luck !

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  28. While very commonly used, I agree that nandina is quite a lovely plant. However, it is most definitely invasive here in Austin. Birds eat the berries and carry the seeds into the greenbelts all around town, where large clumps of nandina crowd out the natives. With their deep, spreading roots, they are very difficult to eradicate once they get a foothold. For that reason I will not recommend the berrying varieties to my design clients. It's a shame though--they are lovely and very tough.

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