The common name of this remarkable plant, Heavenly Bamboo, is half right. It is heavenly, or certainly ethereal in its stature, delicate foliage and ease of cultivation, but Nandina domestica is not a bamboo.
Native to China and Japan, this member of the barberry family likely got its common name due to its cane-like stems, gently branched and supporting lacy evergreen complex leaves. Unlike bamboo, it grows in clumps, its size expanding over the years by suckers (infant shoots) which pop out by the sides of the parent stems. In horticultural jargon, it is a “clumping shrub.”
Growing to a height of six to eight feet, this is an excellent filler plant. Filler plant? Yes.
Spotted around the garden, here and there, Nandina will fill in among the trunks of deciduous plants, conifers and large-leafed evergreens, with quietly beautiful foliage, bringing visual continuity and weaving a cluster of disparate plants into a graceful whole. Or, one alone, placed as a focal point in the garden can be equally useful. Best of all, it performs well in either sun or shade.
In summer this plant blooms in upright, conical clusters of tiny creamy blossoms, which turn into small fruits. The fruits appear late in the fall and stay on well into winter, if not spring, or until birds gobble them. They seem to be a favorite of robins.
If you can bear to rob your winter garden of these flashes of bright color, cut a cluster of berries and bring them inside to enjoy in a vase of water. They last longer, by far, than most cut flowers.
In the garden, this month, Nandina shimmers, its firm, glossy foliage wet with rainwater. If it has been grown in ample light, our recent cold snap will probably have turned the leaves red, and atop the plant will be the loose cones of brilliant red berries.
To show off Nandina at its best, remove the lower branches and leaflets up the bottom two-thirds of the upright canes, exposing the woody stems. Allow the upper leaves, topped by flower and then berry clusters, to carry the spectacle. Nandina domestica Moyers Red is a choice selection, favored for its broad leaflets that color up vividly in winter. Its pinkish flowers are followed by a robust crop of fruits that appear a month or two earlier than the berries of the basic species.
There are many cultivated varieties of Nandina domestica. Some are cherished for their dwarf size and bright red winter leaf color. Look for N.d. Fire Power, Harbor Dwarf or Moon Bay, among others. These rarely exceed three feet in height and fill in the garden at ground level, not needing to have their major vertical stems groomed to be showy.
Give these plants good, rich acidic soil, ample water with good drainage, although they will tolerate drought. Give them a boost in early spring and early summer with a light application of a complete fertilizer or a top dressing of compost.
If you need to reduce the height of a plant, do so by cutting the tallest canes all the way to ground level, allowing the newer, shorter canes to stay in place at the height you want the plant. If you cut Nandina at mid-stem, it will branch, but you’ll lose that simple and towering effect that makes the plant so appealing.
Nandinas make dramatic container subjects, given a generous pot to grow in and reasonable attention with watering and feeding. They last for years, rarely needing repotting. One often sees them elegantly sprouting from handsome earthenware jars in China and Japan. To the Western eye, they seem to shout “ancient and imperial Asia!”
You’ll have no trouble finding most Nandinas in nurseries now. Until you figure out just where to plant one in your garden, enjoy it slipped into a decorative container at your entry or placed out on a terrace where you can see it from indoors. Valentine’s Day is coming. So give your Valentine, or yourself and your winter garden, a heavenly dose of foliage and fruit. It will be a colorful and artistic addition to your environment that has all the zing of Cupid’s arrow.