Overlooked, Lovely Nandina

Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Every garden needs a nandina, just like every boy needs a dog who loves him no matter what. Loyal and forgiving, possessed of much personality, and almost as common as azaleas in gardens of a certain age, these shrubs will grow literally anywhere. When I was invited to help bring a 1940’s look to plants for the movie, ‘My Dog Skip’, I gained new respect for the Southern garden favorite, Nandina domestica, or ‘Heavenly Bamboo’. We needed more plants for more movie sets than we could afford and a kind Cantonian offered a row of nandinas, ours for the digging. Labor came cheaper than plants (not that any could be found as fine as these) so we dug up twenty-five and potted them. Voila! a traveling hedge – sturdy segmented canes studded with complex leaflets in every shade of green plus red and purple. Mulched so they looked planted, those nandinas sat next to antebellum front porches and modest back doors, just as they did in that decade. But because it’s the movies, the durable nandinas also did duty as camouflage for modern air conditioners and even screened a dog trainer so ‘Skip’ could get his cue. These tough plants rode around in a truck for six weeks and got watered at night if at all, yet they barely wilted, and hardly dropped a leaf. At the end of the project, the plants were in good enough shape to use in replanting landscapes used in the film. Except, of course, for the one in my front yard. No soil, wet or dry, can stop a Nandina’s roots; sunny cool exposures bring out the best in leaf color and berry number, but shade is fine, too, to feature its distinct form and segmented canes that do look bambooish. In more moderate conditions, the species thrives, delivering fine texture, a range of colored leaves at different stages and seasons, discreet, creamy white flowers, and those grand red berries. The clusters hang on for months, slowly turning bright red by fall to be savoured by birds through the winter. There is a variety ‘Alba’ with greenish white berries, an oddity prized by some and vilified by others as freakish. Versatility could be Nandina’s pseudonym, and may explain the continued popularity of this Asian native. The classic specimen is evergreen and grows into a 6x4 ft. clump of canes, with new leaf tips and some mature leaflets showing nice red color and berry clusters bigger than your palm. Hedges and foundation plantings abound with Nandinas in traditional older and cottage gardens. But newer varieties offer smaller sizes and better leaf color. All are excellent plants for mass plantings, borders, as specimen plants and in containers. Though many established Nandinas are often ignored by their satisfied owners, they benefit from annual fertilization with a balanced formula. Where conditions are very wet and hot, use a fertilizer high in phosphorus once each spring to promote berry production. To cultivate Nandina domestica’s best assets, prune it every few years to remove the oldest canes. Smaller varieties are smaller and slower growing, and need no pruning except to shape and remove any dead twigs. Selections of N. domestica worth growing for easy fall color: ‘Compacta’ Called Dwarf Nandina, grows to 3 feet tall, sends out lots of underground stolens to form dense clumps; finely cut leaves ‘Harbour Dwarf’ Less than two feet tall, spreads wider to make excellent ground cover; brash orange leaves in winter ‘Nana’ 1 or 2 feet tall, an oddball with mottled, sometimes twisted leaves; leaves colored green, yellow, shades of purple ‘Moyers Red’ 4 feet tall, big leaves; bright red fall color in cooler areas ‘Gulf Stream’ 2-3 feet tall, bronze and green leaves turning red in winter. Parts of this blog were contained in a shrub profile I wrote for MS Gardener magazine in 2002.
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