Red winter berries! What evokes a more festive winter spirit than a glowing fireplace and glowing red berries? Welcome back to another horticultural adventure. To celebrate the winter season, over the next few weeks we will take a look at some beautiful plants that are well suited, if not native, for our local landscapes and climate… and also have gorgeous red fruit (berries) shining bright on these cool mornings.
Well, that’s a little cooler than we’re used to seeing in Southern California (but that is a Nandina domestica)
This week we will delve into the controversial Nandina domestica, also known as sacred bamboo. What is so controversial about this plant, you ask? Well, keep reading to find out.
The tall, narrow form of Nandina domestica
Nandina domestica (sacred bamboo) basics:
- Perennial woody shrub
- 6 – 8 ft tall, 3 ft wide (there are lower growing dwarf varieties)
- Rounded to tall, narrow form
- Moderate growth rate
- Evergreen in warm climates, semi-deciduous in cooler regions (dramatic seasonal color change in leaves)
- Slightly fragrant flowers, otherwise not notably fragrant
- Flowers: white clusters, small but showy
- Blooming season: spring, followed by green to red berries that persist through fall and winter, providing seasonal beauty
Native Area and Horticultural History
Sacred bamboo in a sacred place
Sacred bamboo (which is not a true bamboo – but they share visual similarities) is native to Asia, naturally occurring in regions of India (areas around the Himalayas), China, and Japan.
Nandina domestica has been grown in cultivated gardens in China and Japan for centuries. In our western world, it is still associated with the Japanese garden aesthetic. The Scottish gardener, and globetrotting plant hunter, William Kerr, introduced Nandina domestica to the English people when he sent a specimen from southern China to London in 1804 (the same year the Royal Horticultural Society was formed in England and Napoleon was proclaimed Emperor of the French, a somewhat lofty title).
At first, English horticulturalists mostly kept Nandina in greenhouses, unsure whether it could handle the chill of winter. It turns out Nandina can withstand that frosty English chill.
Later introduced to the United States, these plants became popular for their exotic aesthetic. Although wanning in popularity for a long period of time, the introduction of smaller, dwarf cultivars has brought a resurgence of their landscape appeal in parts of the country, including Southern California.
*Lengthy side note in reference to that ‘English chill’ mentioned above: a plant’s ability to survive cold temperatures is known as ‘hardiness.’ Nandina, if accustomed, can withstand cold temperatures down to 10 degrees Fahrenheit before being permanently damaged or destroyed. So, one would say it is hardy to 10 degrees. If someone says ‘hardy’ in reference to a plants ability to withstand drought, or take severe pruning, you can politely correct them and feel smug about it.
Nandina domestica ‘Firepower’ – a dwarf cultivar
Nandina’s misnomer, sacred bamboo, is somewhat understandable. It’s long, upright cane-like stems resemble true bamboo. Also, Nandina’s clumping growth habit further resembles a common bamboo aesthetic. Its branching structure is often particularly graceful. You might even find yourself asking tall specimens if you may have the next dance.
Sacred bamboo has particularly showy leaves; green and lacy throughout much of the year, turning a fiery red in autumn (which is more pronounced in cooler climates). Young leaves tend to be a bronze to red color, greening over time.
The clumping growth habit of Nandina domestica keeps it fairly well contained in Southern California, however it is does not stay well contained in all climates – more on that below. Its height depends widely on the particular cultivar, with some types growing as tall as 10 feet, while others stay a very manageable 18 inches.
The small white flowers appear in spring and form in beautiful clusters.
Nandina flower cluster ready to blossom
The showy flower blossom of sacred bamboo
The white flowers will produce small green berries in late spring and summer. As the fruit matures in late fall the berries turn a brilliant red, often lasting through the winter. This is one of Nandina’s prized attributes – bountiful clusters of red berries! Even the most warm hearted of Southern Californians will feel that festive ice cold spirit when gazing upon these wintery fruits.
The eye-catching red berries of Nandina
Nandina is often used as a screening plant providing some measure of privacy, or as a border plant giving a showy display along a grey wall (just an example). They also fit well into Japanese themed landscapes. With their almost wispy leaf and branching structure, and green to red colors, they can resemble Japanese maples.
The showy scarlet red leaves of Nandina mid-winter
Often tall and thin, they fit well into narrow spaces and tight entry ways. They also make excellent pot and container plants.
While older, highly established specimens of Nandina will have some drought tolerance, these plants often find our Southern Californian climate just a bit too hot. That does not mean they will not grow, they are very common throughout the Los Angeles area, however they will need supplemental water. Generally, they need weekly irrigation to maintained a full, robust look. In the extreme heat of certain summer weeks, they might need even more frequent watering to keep from showing drought stress.
Nandina domestica make excellent container plants (just make sure they are receiving enough water)
- Full sun to partial sun
- Supplemental water 1x per week unless it is raining, sometimes more frequent irrigation in summer to keep full, or if it is in a container
- Nandina is prone to iron chlorosis (the leaves turning yellow) and marginal tip burn in highly alkaline soils (usually found more in the desert). This plant is very salt sensitive, which, generally, is not an issue around Los Angeles, however our soils are often slightly alkaline
- They tend to prefer a medium draining soil
- Can be used as an accent plant, informal hedge, entryway plant, border plant, and well suited for Japanese aesthetic gardens
- While the flowers do attract honeybees, there is little to no evidence that they are an important species for wildlife in North America, and as a hint for the later discussed controversy, they can be dangerous if consumed
- A balanced, slow release fertilizer can be added in late winter or early spring
- Propagation can be done by seed, cutting, division, and tissue culture
Sacred bamboo is low maintenance, generally, and fairly pest and disease free. For tall, upright cultivars, selectively remove older branches to ¼ of its length during late winter or early spring.
No not shear Nandina domestica! No power hedging, please. You will destroy its lacy, delicate branch and leaf structure, leaving an angry, bare stock of sticks. Your neighbors will leave anonymous notes of disapproval on your car windshield.
A cat eyeing a robust specimen of Nadina. Generally, cats don’t do landscape maintenance, however I suspect they have a certain aesthetic appreciation for natural beauty.
And now for the controversy!
Yes, toxicity isn’t just for industrial waste. The sacred bamboo is a member of the barberry family of plants. All plants in this family have a high concentration of berberine, which is a bright yellow alkaloid. This substance makes the bark and root of sacred bamboo very bitter.
The beautiful berries contain compounds that produce cyanide if ingested. Yes, that cyanide. This renders what is also commonly known as heavenly bamboo (I’m now introducing this other common name for dramatic effect) as poisonous to livestock, domestic animals, and wildlife. Heavenly indeed. Generally, one must consume large quantities to be lethal, however ingestion may cause sickness.
The cedar waxwing bird, which has a winter range including Southern California, is known as a voracious eater and will consume these heavenly berries, often killing the bird.
A cedar waxwing gorging itself. Note: that is not a Nandina berry
Invasive Species in the Southeast (but not Southwest)
Much like Sherman’s army, Nandina domestica has marched through the heart of Dixie, leaving a path of, well, itself. Nandina domestica has escaped cultivation and is considered somewhat invasive in Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, and Texas.
Although it is not listed as invasive by the Yankee federal government, these states have various management considerations. Nandina domestica grows in large clumps in certain climates of these states, choking out some native plants by reducing the available sunlight.
This is not of necessary concern in Southern California, however it illustrates an introduced plant’s ability to interrupt a native habitat, which is something we must all be aware of, and responsible for, in this globalized world of ours.
What’s in a Name?
In case you are wondering, I keep switching between this plant’s various names to throw you off – just joking, it’s good to know both the common name(s) and botanical name, so you can communicate with your local botanist and your local yokel. Words are about communication, right? Or are they meant to mystify and signal your educational status?
Nandina comes from the Latinized version of the Japanese name for this plant, which is ‘nanten.’ ‘Nanten’ means ‘southern sky,’ however according to the Seattle Japanese Garden website, ‘nanten’ also has a similar pronunciation to a different Japanese word that means, ‘problems which turn for the better.’ We can all use some of that, right? Don’t tell the cedar waxwing, though. That’s cruelly cynical.
The species epithet, domestica, means, ‘domesticated.’ This is a nod to the plant’s cultivated status. Put it all together and we have something like ‘domesticated southern sky.’ Although I’m almost entertaining the urge to draw some connection between that name and this plant’s invasiveness of those Southern states, ultimately, that is nonsensical. ‘Domestica’ is also the Italian word for a female servant, or housekeeper.
Thank you for joining us again on our weekly journey through the world of horticulture. Come back next week for our second installment in this series on common Southern California plants that have bountiful beautiful red winter berries! And as always, contact us to learn more about what plants, and landscape features, are right for your property!
Nandina in the cultivated garden
DO YOU have Nandina domestica, or any other locally common plant in your landscape? We want to see them! Please send us a picture and we will happily feature it in a blog article! We do love our California plants, but we don’t discriminate! All are welcome! Send those beauties to [email protected], thank you.
Thank you for joining us again in this week’s horticultural adventures. Please come back next Wednesday for out next blog post, and as always, contact us for all your landscape needs!
By Daniel Williams
Client Liaison for Creative Concepts Landscape
The Seattle Japanese Garden – A beautifully landscaped garden (which is temporarily closed for the winter but will soon open back up) situated in a very different climate than ours in Southern California. It’s good to see what else the world has to offer!
Monrovia Growers – Offering a wide range of plants for the landscape. Although they deal with nurseries and wholesale only, you can still peruse their website for inspiration!