Occasionally I am asked what my favorite shrub (or tree or perennial etc.) is. On the shrub issue, they are visibly shocked, most of them anyway, when I answer it is nandinas. The usual response is, “You’re kidding” or “Surely you jest.”
Yes, nandinas offer a love-hate relationship to most gardeners.
Some (most) of them hate nandinas, while a few, like me, love them. Why, for goodness sakes, would anyone pick the common and, I must admit, rather pedestrian nandina as a favorite?
Well, I could give a thousand reasons, but I will hold it to only a few.
First off, the standard nandina that has been around since forever, is a native of the Himalayas and Japan. Botanically it is Nandina domestica, and it is sometimes called heavenly bamboo, for the habit of growing stems that do not normally divide but grow upward without branching. It is related to barberries, and, while looks would fool you the kicker is the yellow wood when a stem is broken. In both genera it is bright yellow.
Just those few things would be no reason to grow nandinas, but there is more.
They are tough. In our 46 years at Tennessee Dixter, the only losses I have had with nandinas was a few years when voracious voles ate the roots off several 6-foot specimens and they fell over. Never a loss from drought, never a loss from too much water, and never a loss from any animal pests from aphids or other insects right on up to deer, which do not browse them.
Even all that would be insufficient reason to grow them, but the standard, or full size nandinas, bear the most glorious red berries of about any shrub we can grow. And, they grow in large clusters, like grapes. They make for Christmas decorations par excellence, as My Assistant and numerous other people can profess. We have dear friends in the area of Peoria, Ill., who can’t, at that latitude, grow nandinas that far north. We send them a big box full of berried branches every year just after Thanksgiving and the lady of the house, who is an accomplished floral designer as well as a highly skilled gardener, puts together cheerfully designed seasonal arrangements using nandina berries.
And another plus: those berries will last indefinitely inside the home. We have a grouping of them on a kitchen side table which has been in situ for four or five years, with no water. I will say, the berries have faded a bit in that time, but are still decorative.
The straight species of nandina can grow up to 10 feet tall, but there are varieties that will reach only about a third of that. ‘Gulfsteam’ is one of my favorites and will reach four feet or so. It will bear berries but not as plentifully as the species.
Just about the most popular dwarf is ‘Firepower’ whose only redeeming virtue in my opinion is red leaves in winter. No berries, it is sterile. Then too, it has a dumpy habit of growth that is only (barely) relieved by growing them in groups planted close enough together to disguise the poor growth habit.
In fact, even standard nandinas and other varieties are better grown in groups. We have a mixed border some 100 feet long that is backed largely with standard nandinas. It makes for a solid background after years of spreading and self-seedling.
Another plus: the new foliage of standard nandinas and some of the varieties is a red-maroon that will do justice to any Japanese maple. It greens up later, but by then the swags of small white flowers appear, to be followed by the berries.
One of the reasons for the hate relationships some gardeners have for nandinas is improper pruning. For a long time, new nandinas need little pruning, but eventually they try to become leggy. That is when to cut out individual stems to a couple of feet or so, and leave other stems alone to hide the stubs. By doing this treatment every few years, the shrub will be well furnished to the ground.
If you are still not satisfied with your big nandinas, try planting a vigorous clematis (if there is such a thing) under them and let the clematis vines reach toward the top of the shrub, where they will put on flowers that seem to come from the shrub itself. I have done just that in a couple of places and, miraculously, the clematises have lived long enough to be effective.
JIMMY WILLIAMS is the garden writer for The Post-Intelligencer, where he can be contacted on Monday mornings at 642-1162.