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Nandina: Is it Heavenly or Not?

Nandina domestica, also called heavenly bamboo, is a plant that grows in my woodland garden. It was already here when we came in 1985, and I have loved its lacy foliage and bright red berries. It is absolutely a low maintenance plant, requiring no fertilization, no extra watering, and no pruning. It will survive draught, floods, and fire and is deer and rabbit resistant. Individual plants can have a life span greater than a hundred years.Nandina in the woodland setting, growing in the foreground in this June photo of my woodland garden

The perfect plant? Unfortunately, no. In many areas of the South the species is considered an invasive plant. In my state, Alabama, it is listed as a plant of concern. Nevertheless, it is widely sold in garden centers, and about the only way to get rid of mature plants is with chemical herbicides, though smaller plants can be pulled by hand.

Nandina is native to eastern Asia. Despite its common name, heavenly bamboo is not a bamboo at all. It is a member of the Barberry family, but its beautiful leaves do resemble bamboo leaves. The species grows five to eight feet tall, though there are many dwarf cultivars available. Nandina grows best in humous rich, well drained soil in sun to partial shade. It will grow in dry shade, producing fewer berries. It survives in hardiness zones 4-10, though the normally evergreen plant may not prosper and will be deciduous in the coldest regions.

Young leaves are bright pink, turning to green in early summer, then taking on bronze and rosy hues in autumn. In early summer, eight to twelve inch clusters of white flowers are held above the foliage. The flowers are followed by green berries that mature to bright red in late fall.

The above photo was taken in August, 2010.This photo was take December 31, 2009. The leaves and berries were edged with frost.All parts of the plant are poisonous to humans. Warning! Ingestion can be fatal. Research shows the berries are also toxic to birds and other wildlife, who do not always recognize them as poisonous. 

Some of the cultivars do not produce fruit and should not be invasive. One I have planted is Nandina 'Firepower'. It is a dwarf form with multihued leaves which provide wonderful color accent in the garden. I like the way it complements other plants in the garden.Nandina 'Firepower' foliageNandina 'Firepower' and caryopteris

As mention previously, nandina doesn't usually require pruning, but if desired for size control, pruning can be done any time of the year. Never sheer across the top. Instead, prune individual branches at different heights throughout the plant. I don't fertilize mine, but an evergreen fertilizer may be applied once a year if needed.

 Addendum: Please read about my decision to take out the nandinas, as well as the mahonias, in my garden: My Decision 

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Reader Comments (26)

I love the nandina berries in the fall - I'm very jealous as they're not hardy here. Love how you've used them in a woodland setting - usually see them lined up in foundation plantings.

October 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCyndy

I too think this "plant of concern" is beautiful. I've inherited it also in the two of the gardens I've tended over the years. Never a problem in the garden, but I do worry that those birds it attracts are spreading it about. I always plan to clip off the berries before they mature, but that bright red is sooooo tempting.

October 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFloridagirl

Once I had to dig up an old nandina. It just about killed me. For years after that, I shuddered whenever I saw one. But I'm coming around. This winter, they were absolutely spectactular -- they seemed to love the extra cold we got. The winter color was outstanding. In all my tromping around in the woods, I have never seen one. Doesn't mean it isn't a plant of concern, but I think I would worry about ligustrum and chinese tallow first. Yours are beautiful! Have you seen the one called 'Flirt?' It's a very pretty purple one!

October 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterElizabeth Barrow

I agree, more devilish than heavenly. We have some in the front of the house that was bestowed on us by the previous owners. In a fit I hacked it down all the way to the ground the first month after we moved in. I thought it would die...was I wrong! It grew back stronger than ever, even though I deprived it of water, and now it's taller than me, and there are little Nandina's popping up in the same bed. I certainly can see its dastardly and invasive potential. Now I'm just waiting for our first rains so this time I can pull it/dig it up by the roots! Good to know though that there are cultivars that are not so invasive. Truth is, I left it this long because deer don't go near it, and around here, there's not much the deer don't touch.

October 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCurbstone Valley Farm

There is no Nandina here, but yes it is beautiful. Even just the foliage can provide beauty in the garden, much more the berries. I just don't know if they are also eaten by the birds, i hope they are.

October 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAndrea in this Lifetime

What a lovely looking plant. But dangerous... Thank you for an interesting and informative text:)
Kindest regards,

October 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMadame C

I agree that Nandino is a lovely shrub, certainly one of my favourites. I don't think it is a problem plant here, I've never heard it mentioned as such, maybe because it is drier here, it isn't invasive. I discovered by accident last year that the bronze, young folliage looks perfect with Iris Kentish Maid; I intend moving them closer together.

October 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChristina

Nandina is very popular here because it is so easy to care for and so attractive. But to my taste it looks a million times better in your woodland setting. The natural and large setting lends itself to a bit of wandering.

October 4, 2010 | Unregistered Commentercatmint

I pulled all of my berry producing nandinas out in the spring. I did not like all the seedlings and wished to reduce maintenance. I can see how it would take over since it is so adaptable. I do grow the lower ones and they don't set seed but only spread by getting bigger. They are most heavenly for structure in the winter. .

October 4, 2010 | Unregistered Commentertina

I love your woodland garden, Deb, that must be stunning in autumn. Friend or foe, nandina and it's lovely berries look charming. Sounds like you have the perfect 'heavenly' setting for this plant.

October 4, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterjoey

I have lots of nandina in my garden and love it for its berries, its all season interest, and its hardiness. I often cut it for fall arrangements - it looks pretty with dried hydrangea blooms. It isn't invasive in my garden, but occasionally a baby will sprout and I'll pull it if it's going to be in the way.

October 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGinny

I doubt it would be very happy where I live. It's interesting to see these lush, lovely photos, though. It's too dry here for trees to grow naturally so a stroll through the woods is always a special treat.

I've had my Nadine about 3 years and it has hardly put on any growth. I dont think it is very happy where it is as the leaves certainly never get to be a nice green. It did produce flowers this summer but I am thinking of moving it though I have no idea where to! It certainly isnt invasive in my garden

October 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterHelen

Deborah I can remember this plant from last winter in your garden. My favourite posts were from your blog and your wonderful woodland walks. I'm sure the display will be bigger and better this year. I wish nandinas would self seed here.

Mine died - I cut it down hoping new shoots might appear but alas nothing has happened. I think I might buy a firepower as it would love lovely alongside my caryopteris heavenly blue.

October 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRosie

Sory I've not visited for a while - currently nursing a bad back -not what you want as a gardener - at least some time to catch up on my favorite blogs for a change! Do hope you've had a good summer - it's been SO dry here. I love the autumn colours of your Nandina - quite beautiful... autumn really is a pretty time of year - take care Miranda

October 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMiranda Bell

I have heavenly bamboo in my garden, too. I think they are pretty and with little care. I just cut off the berries to avoid traveling. The red berries are very pretty, though. When I bought it I didn't realize it was invasive...i didn't do my homework. The stores are definitely not going to advertise that information. The firepower has very pretty colors!

October 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAmy

I'm really surprised to find out that nandina can be such a pest in places. And that it seems to survive to zone 4. I had a beautiful nandina when I lived in a warmer climate but we had one bad winter and the poor thing died. I assumed it couldn't take cold weather. You've proved me wrong! which is actually kind of a good thing because it means they might survive in my zone 5 garden now...

October 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMarguerite

I do love that woodland garden. If I had it I'd probably balls it up by clearing it and growing potatoes! It's best I don't ever have one, and just appreciate the pictures of yours!

October 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterThe Idiot Gardener

Dear Deborah, Beauty and the beast?! It is so amazing when plants for one are invasive and a nuisance and for others perfectly well behaved or, even, fail to thrive at all. I do like Bamboo and have grown the black stemmed Bamboo in pots which I found to be very slow to increase. It is so useful that you give timely advice here about the Nandina since better to be safe than sorry as they say.

October 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterEdith Hope

I'm a big fan of all nandinas, as well. They are so versatile! They are black-listed with the Texas Parks & Wildlife folks, though, because they are taking over native species as the birds deposit their berries in native areas. I am on a mission to teach people how to prune them correctly, though. I see them sheared into balls and squares, eventually reducing them to ugly sticks! I would suggest if they are pruned, that the canes be cut to the ground, though, to keep them compact and full and not "leggy" sticks. Enjoying your blog. Just "faved" you :-) Blog on, Deb!!

I love this plant too. Unfortunately it is not deer resistant so it doesn't work for me.

In addition to being an invasive species, the berries can be quite toxic to birds. http://www.wmswcd.org/blog/index.cfm/2013/9/23/Nandina-Berries-Kill-Birds

January 4, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKeith

No one should be planting Nandina anywhere. It is highly invasive, destroying eco-systems, and also highly toxic to wildlife, including birds. The berries produce hydrogen cyanide, which when ingested by birds causes hemorrhaging of the internal organs, and a painful death within an hour of being eaten. Most native birds have learned not to eat the berries, but many migratory species will eat them when found on their flight paths. Studies have been done on birds who have been found dead by the dozens, revealing Nandina berries in their digestive tract, and cause of death from internal hemorrhage due to the berries. People should stop promoting the planting of the highly invasive and deadly Nandina. Read as much information as you can about it before planting them just because they're "hardy" and "pretty."

April 12, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterdanae

I have potted 2 nandinas in tow separate pots in exactly the same position. One looks as if it is dying, the other is healthy. Why is one dying and the other not? They are in a south facing garden in the south east of England

April 27, 2015 | Unregistered Commentersuki turner

The berries are poisonous to birds.

November 22, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDebbi

Where do you all live that birds eat nandina berries? Here in Seattle I've grown them for years - no bird even looks at the berries. And no problem digging them up and removing them. Must be a climate thing.

March 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterPaul

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