Also known as heavenly or sacred bamboo, Nandina can add a Japanese touch to gardens and landscapes. Its plants have feathery foliage that resembles some of the smaller-leaved bamboos, hence the common name, but they are unrelated. The fine leaflets are attractive and turn vibrant shades of red and purple during the autumn and winter months.
There is one species in the genus: N. domestica Award of Garden Merit (AGM). It is part of the Berberidaceae family and is found wild in Japan and over a wide area of east Asia, as far as the Himalayas. Many cultivars have been produced - around 60 in Japan, where they are popular and are said to bring luck.
Some are variegated or have twisted leaves and the plant has become associated with the tea ceremony and is often used in flower arrangements. In the UK there are few available commercially - about 10 varieties, as well as the straight species and the yellow-berried form, N. domestica var. leucocarpa.
N. domestica AGM is an upright and elegant evergreen or semi-deciduous shrub that can grow 2m tall. It has woody stems topped with glossy, compound, feathery leaves. Panicles of white flowers are borne in the summer, followed - if the season is hot - by red berries. Through breeding, the range of habits can go from compact (N. domestica 'Wood's Dwarf') to taller, vigorous varieties such as N. domestica 'Richmond'. All varieties change colour in the autumn or winter, varying from yellow through to orange, red or purple. Most also have attractively coloured young foliage.
Nandina can be planted in a sunny position or in partial shade. Established plants are frost hardy but the young foliage is still slightly tender and can be damaged by cold winds or severe frosts, so a sheltered location is preferable. They thrive in acid to neutral soil that is humus-rich, moist but well drained.
If foliage is damaged, shoots can be cut back right to the base. This can be done during summer to renovate overcrowded shrubs. Nandina is also sometimes kept indoors in pots - smaller varieties such as N. domestica 'Fire Power' AGM or N. domestica 'Gulf Stream' are well suited to this.
Propagation is hampered by the extremely slow germination of the berries - which, like the rest of the plant, are slightly toxic to pets - so taking cuttings is more reliable. These should be taken as single-node cuttings put into a heated propagator in midsummer, or as nodal or heeled cuttings placed in a cold frame in autumn or winter.
Plants should be overwintered under glass or given some protection for the first two years. When thriving, N. domestica varieties will also produce runners that can be dug up and replanted.
WHAT THE SPECIALISTS SAY
Patsy Bowers, propagator, Crug Farm Plants, Gwynedd "Nandina is a decorative, bamboo-like, evergreen suckering shrub with erect shoots that reach up to 2m tall. I've never had a problem with them, though they don't want to be in a cold wind.
"There wouldn't have been many places selling them 20-26 years ago, as there are now, because the foliage used to get burned off. But it is a lot warmer these days with our changing climate and they do all right now.
"The owners of Crug Farm, Bleddyn and Sue Wynn Jones, have collected two forms of N. domestica from the wilds of Japan which we are now growing. B&SWJ 11113 was collected in Fukuoka and has broad, compound leaves - we are currently building up stock of this one. B&SWJ 4923 was collected from Shikoku Island in 1997 - it has relatively large leaves and is commercially available."
Joanne McCullock, nursery manager, Larch Cottage Nurseries, Penrith, Cumbria "Nandina is airy, delicate and easy to grow. It likes sheltered conditions and acid to neutral soil. At this time of year the foliage starts turning red. 'Richmond' is probably the best for berries, while 'Fire Power' is the best for autumn colour. N. domestica 'Orhime' is a dwarf variety that reaches about 1m high.
"N. domestica var. leucocarpa has the yellow berries, which makes it stand out from the others, whose berries are red. They are ideal for a Japanese garden. It's best to plant them in groups, so you're more likely to get berries. However, 'Richmond' is a hermaphrodite type, so you will get berries with a single plant. The plants are well behaved and need minimal pruning."
Colin Davies, shrub manager, Ashwood Nurseries, West Midlands "They all have excellent autumn and winter colour that starts around mid-October. The flowers are fairly insignificant though, but they have nice foliage and little red berries. They are quite straightforward plants. They need a sheltered spot as they are a little bit frost tender. You can treat them similarly to bamboo. 'Fire Power' is a dwarf variety and 'Richmond' is an improved form of straight N. domestica AGM."
Peter Thomas, garden designer, Peter Thomas Associates Garden Design, Hertfordshire
"Nandina is a very popular plant in residential gardens and landscape schemes. It is a very reliable plant. It has evergreen foliage that turns red in the autumn and has beautiful flowers too.
"I plant Nandina in groups - it looks straggly by itself. I don't know of any particular problems with the genus and plants can be pretty much left as they are, not needing regular pruning."
SPECIES AND CULTIVARS
- Nandina domestica Award of Garden Merit (AGM) is the only species in its genus. An evergreen or semi-deciduous shrub which grows up to 2m tall, it has grey-brown, woody, cane-like stems. The large, compound green leaves are attractively tinged purplish-red in spring and autumn. Small, white flowers are carried in large panicles during the summer. The plant can produce pea-sized, bright red berries but in the UK they form only after very hot summers.
- N. domestica 'Fire Power' AGM is a dwarf variety. Its foliage is yellow-green in summer but turns a strong orange-red in the winter.
- N. domestica 'Gulf Stream' is a dense, compact form with leaves that are smaller and more diamond-shaped than the species. Its coppery young foliage matures to a metallic blue-green colour during the summer. In the winter the foliage turns red.
- N. domestica 'Harbor Dwarf' is a small variety, with a height and spread of around 90cm. The flowers are creamy white or pinkish-white and the autumn colouring of the foliage is orange-red or bronze-red.
- N. domestica var. leucocarpa stands out for having yellow berries rather than red. The dark green leaflets also turn yellow in the autumn. It grows up to 1.5m.
- N. domestica 'Nana Purpurea' is a small shrub of more compact habit than the species. It has less-compound leaves and broader leaflets. The foliage retains a purple-red flush throughout the season.
- N. domestica 'Orhime' has small, finely formed leaves and will reach no more than 60cm at maturity. Its new growth is tinged mahogany-red, while summer leaves turn pale aqua and winter brings back the red tones.
- N. domestica Plum Passion = 'Monum' stands out for having new growth that is deep purplish-red turning to deep green in summer. In the winter the foliage turns plum purple.
- N. domestica 'Pygmaea' forms a dense, mound-forming shrub. This variety produces little fruit.
- N. domestica 'Richmond' is a vigorous, medium-sized form which produces large bunches of red berries during winter.
- N. domestica 'Wood's Dwarf' is a compact form that reaches a mature height of about 60cm. It has bright-red winter colour and is said to be disease-resistant.