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Heavenly Bamboo Lives up to its Name

June 23, 2008
Julie Monson

Nandina domestica, often referred to as Heavenly Bamboo, is a popular evergreen shrub favored by gardeners for its versatility, hardiness, and attractive, lacy, pale green foliage. A native of Japan, China, and India, it thrives in Northern California gardens in a variety of roles, depending on the cultivar: as a hedge, single specimen plant, decorative covering for a fence or wall, even as a ground cover.

Nandina blends well with other evergreen shrubs and perennials in a planting bed or even in median islands. In late spring, Nandina produces panicles of dainty white flowers that become sprays of colorful red berries in fall and winter. Flowering may depend on having several plants in the same vicinity. Nandina domestica’s two-inch regular leaves cluster near the top of unbranched or sparsely branched bamboo-like stems in a delicate pattern, particularly attractive in contrast to darker foliage, a fence or wall. Modestly slow growing to 6 feet, it reliably keeps its shape, tending to need little care or pruning.
Nandina domestica is a popular shrub in Japanese gardens, as it tolerates shade well, and provides visual interest in each season: new bronze-copper leaves in spring, sprays of white flowers in summer, reddish leaves in fall, and red berries in winter. Its tidy growth habit makes it useful in small spaces like courtyard gardens where it might be placed to contrast with the darker foliage of clipped azaleas, as an accent near a water basin or ornamental rock, or, I was surprised to learn, by the kitchen door. Small sprays of Nandina are used decoratively with some Japanese dishes. Branches of Nandina are also popular for Japanese flower arrangements (ikebana), and I find it a useful filler in bouquets of all kinds.
In Japan during the Edo Period (1603-1868), close to 200 cultivars were developed and the Nandina trade became something like “Tulipomania” in Holland in the 17th Century. While most of these cultivars no longer exist, one can find an even dozen cultivars (listed in Sunset’s Western Garden Book) that are available. These range from 1 ½ feet to 6 feet high and provide the gardener with excellent choices for different garden settings: several Nandina domestica serve as a successful evergreen accent along the wall of my Japanese-style courtyard; cultivar ‘Compacta’ (4 – 5 feet) with lacy leaves and intense fall color sits handsomely beside a small pond; cultivar ‘Gulf Stream’ (to 3 ½ feet) is compatible with other perennials and grasses in the median island in Inverness. It grows well in containers in partial shade. On a recent trip to the East Coast, I noticed Nandina frequently planted in public gardens (Central Park in New York) and in landscaped commercial areas.
Though moderately drought resistant, Nandina prefers regular irrigation. Each Nandina domestica shrub produces one to several small trunks to about 6 feet and will flower only on new, top growth. An annual spring pruning of one or more trunks at the ground level encourages new shoots and foliage at the lower levels. Pruning of the top can be done in winter, as the Japanese do, to bring indoors sprays of its red berries. I’ve not experimented with pruning the smaller cultivars, but they don’t seem to need it and I expect that they would behave similarly like their larger relatives.
Considering how adaptable, hardy, and attractive Nandina is in the domestic garden, we might expect to find more of it. It’s not a showy plant. It works rather quietly in its serene way, adding grace and year-round lacy greenery. I’m particularly fond of its knack of blending in nicely with other shrubs and perennials. The perfect guest!

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