Heavenly Bamboo

Family: Berberidaceae (Barberry family)
Genus: Nandina
Species: domestica

NandinaHeavenly Bamboo—Nandina domestica—has to be near the top of any list of desirably attractive, easy-to-care-for, mid-sized shrubs for the Pacific Northwest home garden. It’s been a favorite of commercial plantspeople for years and is a long-standing staple for the home landscape in many areas. I understand that Heavenly Bamboo was one of the most popular plants at the Northwest Flower and Garden Show in Seattle last month. And deservedly so. The semi-evergreen, delicate foliage of most varieties of this hardy plant shows different colors every season—pinkish in the spring, then fresh, light green, then bronzy purple in the fall and bright crimson in winter. Large clusters of creamy or pinkish white blossoms appear in late spring, followed by showy red berries.

The largest variety of Nandina domestica grows to 8 feet tall and can spread as wide over a number of years. The smallest—‘Wood’s Dwarf’ and ‘Harbour Dwarf’ among them—grow only to 18 inches and can be used as edgers or ground covers. Several excellent selections are available in the middle range, topping out at 3 to 4 feet with an equal width. All varieties do well here in full to part sun, with reasonable care and regular if not extravagant amounts of water. N. domestica is one of the few choices for the dry, dappled shade under evergreen conifers, although such placement will usually result in less brilliantly colored foliage. Judicious annual pruning—the removal of as many as a third of the plant’s cane-like stems each spring—is recommended even if size isn’t a factor, just to keep the plant from becoming untidily sparse at the bottom. Remember to use thinning cuts. Don’t try to shear N. domestica into a formal hedge. If you choose to plant your Heavenly Bamboo in groups, leave these graceful plants to their free and flowing form and take visual advantage of their lovely light and open presence in your border.

The foliage of Nandina domestica is reminiscent of that of the family of giant grasses known collectively as bamboo, but there is no botanical relationship between them. Heavenly Bamboo is related to another family entirely and has a genus all its own—and a species, as well, since there is only one species in its single genus. So when correctly labeled, all specimens will have three components appearing in their names: genus (Nandina), species (domestica) and variety (many, including ‘Firepower’, ‘Umpqua Princess’, ‘Alba’, and ‘Compacta’). For those who study plant nomenclature, you’ll recognize this as a trinomial. We can veer further into the more-than-some-of-you-want-to-know Department by pointing out that all genus and species names must be in Latin or Greek. Nandina is a New Latin word, constructed from the Japanese nanten, which in turn was derived from the Chinese nan (south) and tian (heaven). Zhu, for bamboo, was converted into the western a to formulate an entirely new descriptor that, while Latin, was never used by the Romans, even if they had ventured far enough to reach into the East Asian native habitat of Nandina domestica, the place where it was first collected in the18th Century.

Gardeners heave a sigh of relief when they learn that Nandina domestica is not related to bamboo, thinking that they’ve chosen a plant that isn’t invasive. But as Master Gardeners, it behooves us to remain aware of what can happen when plants escape the confines of our own backyards, and consider all the ways in which plants can be “invasive.” Think purple loosestrife. Think ivy. Many people are now choosing not to plant Nandina domestica because it’s turned out to like its adopted home in the Western hemisphere all too well. The State of Florida carries it in Category I of its list of plants that are invading and disrupting native plant communities. The introduction to their list states, This definition does not rely on the economic severity or geographic range of the problem, but on the documented ecological damage caused. The US Forest Service has classified Nandina domestica as a Category 2 threat in the forests of the southeastern regions of the United States. It is not on any lists here, yet, or at least none of which I’m aware. But Nandina domestica, as attractive and as useful a landscape ornamental as it may be, is in fact an invasive plant pest in some areas of the country. Proper berry management—a serious sounding version of “get them before the birds do” is suggested as a precaution. The single most important thing we can do as responsible stewards is to remain aware and ever mindful that what we do in our gardens—and outside of them, as well—has an impact on something else, somewhere. We’re each of us responsible for making the most informed choices we can make. Me, I still have three Heavenly Bamboo plants in my yard. But I’ll be beating the birds to the berries and letting others know in presentations, that the case of Nandina domestica reminds us that “invasiveness” has a meaning more broad than one bamboo rhizome uprooting a driveway.