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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