Heavenly bamboos are slow-growing perennials with upright or gently arching stems that give the plants a similar appearance to bamboo. In the garden, they will eventually reach a height of up to 2m and develop a spread of approximately 1.5m. Despite its similar form and the common name, Nandina is not a bamboo but an elegant, evergreen shrub of the barberry family.
Heavenly bamboo originates from mountain forests in the Far East, where it is used rather like holly in the west, with berried stems and sprays sold for New Year house decorations and floral displays. Its heavenly powers are said to dispel bad dreams, and the plants are traditionally established near doorways in Japan so that nightmares can be driven away by stepping outside and telling the shrub the details of the bad dream so that no harm will follow.
The heavenly bamboo was brought to London from China in 1804, and it is now widely grown in gardens as a hardy ornamental plant with year-round qualities. Most varieties have delicate frothy heads of white flowers in July or August. These are not particularly showy, but they are nectar-rich and attract a wide range of pollinating insects. The flowers are followed by bright red, 5mm to 10mm berries in warmer summers. The plant is generally grown for its spectacular foliage. The leaves start off as pink or reddish, then go through various shades of green in the spring turning to shades of amber, orange, purple, copper and red as the winter approaches.
Nandina Domestica Varieties
More than 65 cultivars have been produced and registered in Japan, where the plant is very popular, but there are only ten or a dozen commonly available from UK nurseries. There are male and female versions of the plant in its species form, and in many of the cultivars, so a group will need to be planted to increase the chance of berries. However, the cultivar ‘Richmond’ is hermaphroditic and can produce berries even if grown as an isolated specimen.
The species is an elegant, small and evergreen shrub with an upright and a rather bamboo-like habit. The compound leaves are purplish when young and again in winter. In warm, favourable conditions, it produces large, frothy clusters of small white flowers, and these are followed by red berries.
Nandina domestica ‘Richmond’
‘Richmond’ is one of the most vigorously growing cultivars, and amongst the more reliable flowerers, producing an abundance of red fruit in autumn. Its quality and reliability has earned it the RHS Award of Garden Merit.
Nandina domestica ‘Firepower’
‘Firepower’ is one of the smaller varieties with a compact, mound-forming habit. Its leaves turn from yellowish-green in summer to bright orange through fiery copper and bright red in the autumn and winter. The small white flowers are followed by shiny, scarlet-red berries. It has become very popular as ground cover in commercial landscape planting, and many gardeners prefer to use other, less ubiquitous varieties in the garden.
Nandina domestica ‘Magical Lemon and Lime’ (or ‘Lemlim’)
The fresh leaves of this heavenly bamboo variety emerge in the spring with a bright, yellowy-green colour, but through spring and summer they change to a deeper lime-green. The richness of the foliage colour is better when the plant is grown in a sunny position, and the leaves take on a duller, darker green when grown in shadier spots.
Nandina domestica ‘Magic Sunrise’
This is a 1m tall cultivar with rich foliage colours throughout the year, reflecting the hues of a beautiful sunrise. It is a particularly appropriate addition to a relaxing Japanese garden alongside Japanese Acers.
Nandina domestica ‘Gulfstream’
‘Gulfstream’ is a relatively compact and dense plant, and it produces a variety of foliage colours. New growth is a rich bronze with a hint of orange, and the leaves turn through dark blue-green to gold in the autumn and winter. It grows to 90cm tall, and is suitable for growing in a large container.
Nandina domestica ‘Woods Dwarf’
This dwarf variety of heavenly bamboo grows up to 60cm tall. It has a very compact growth form and it is generally more resistant to viral diseases than the species and most of the cultivars. Its foliage turns a rich, reddish-purple in the autumn.
Nandina domestica ‘Orhime’
‘Orhime’ is another dwarf variety that reaches about 1m high. It is suitable for pot growing provided the roots are kept cool in a shaded pot, or in a larger container that is kept well watered though freely drained.
Nandina domestica ‘Obsessed’ (‘Seika’)
This compact variety is primarily grown for its startling foliage, which turns from a fiery red when it first emerges in spring, into a handsome, rich green as it ages.
Nandina domestica var. leucocarpa
This variety of heaven bamboo is unusual because it bears white, ivory or pale yellow berries. The plant as a whole is paler and more lacking in colour than most of the cultivars, and it does not go through the same seasonal transition of foliage colour that its red-berried cousins display. It is not as frost-hardy as some of the other varieties, and the berries turn brown if affected by cold temperatures.
Nandina Domestica Care
Heavenly bamboos are fairly low-maintenance garden plants. They are not too fussy about growing conditions, though they do less well on chalky soils and do not tolerate waterlogged conditions. They appreciate shelter from cold winter winds, and a sheltered position is therefore preferable, though they are nevertheless suitable for coastal gardens in the warmer parts of the UK. Plants subjected to low winter temperatures and cold winds are likely to lose their leaves, though should recover unless very badly affected.
Plants can be helped through the winter in the colder parts of the UK or in less sheltered positions by fleecing. An annual late autumn mulch with bark will also help to protect the roots from periods of penetrating frost.
Young plants can be moved around the garden in the autumn, winter or early spring, but transplanting becomes less reliable as the plants age. Containerised specimens bought from the nursery or raised at home can be planted out at any time provided the soil is not frozen and frosts are not expected.
The plant does best in full sun, and while some varieties will tolerate partial or dappled shade, they may not achieve their full potential of depth and range of foliage colour.
New plants should be well watered in without allowing the ground to become waterlogged, and watering should not be necessary in the winter. The plant is drought tolerant once fully established.
Heavenly bamboo will grow in most types of garden soil but do best in a moist but well-drained position in neutral to slightly acid soil. The best conditions can be promoted through an annual winter mulch with well-rotted organic compost.
This is a rather slow-growing plant that is generally not nutrient hungry, so routine feeding is not necessary. Apply a nitrogen-based fertiliser if all of the leaves begin to yellow.
The smaller varieties such as ‘Firepower’ or ‘Gulf Stream’ will do well in larger containers, though they develop quite bulky root systems over time and need potting on frequently to ensure that the pots do not split and to maintain a buffer of compost between the main feeding roots and the pot itself to avoid overheating in the summer. Ideally find a position that allows the sun to the foliage but not to the pots in the summer, and keep them well watered.
Use a good quality, peat-free potting compost with additional grit and ensure that the pot has good drainage holes.
The big advantage of pot growing is that the plant can be moved to the different parts of the garden that are most frequented in the changing seasons to take best advantage of the varying foliage colours. It is also possible to bring berry-laden pot plants into a cold greenhouse so that they last into the following year: next year’s frothy white flowers will develop and provide an attractive contrast to the purplish red of the previous year’s berries.
Looks good with
Heavenly bamboos are very versatile plants and they can be very effectively used in a variety of garden situations and roles. Their architectural quality and year-round colour and textural interest means that they also make great individual specimen plants in prominent garden positions. The shorter varieties make attractive loose and informal hedges when lined out along either side of pathways.
They are a natural for the Japanese garden, well spaced amongst other graceful companions such as Japanese forest grass, true bamboos and ferns, and colourful foils such as red or purple azaleas. Japanese maples with autumn foliage colours that reflect those of the heavenly bamboos can be chosen to add further calm. Many well-known ‘Japanese’ gardens in the UK also have swathes of Hostas and Hemerocallis to tie the design together.
Heavenly bamboo can hold its own at the front of a mixed shrub border or it can be under-planted around the edge of tree canopies, complementing evergreens with similar berry colours such as Skimmia and variegated hollies.
The white-berried variety leucocarpa can be used as a prominent feature in a white border, or it can be used as a backdrop and contrast for darker evergreen shrubs and large-leaved perennials, such as elephant’s ear (Bergenia), Asarum europaeum and Siberian bugloss.
The finely-divided leaves, abundant white flowers and red berries of heavenly bamboos can be used to add variety and contrast to an architectural plant garden, alongside dramatic variegated grasses (like Phalaris arundinacea var. picta ‘Feesey’), Acanthus, Cordyline and Fatsia.
The dwarf varieties will also sit well at the rear of rock-garden plantings.
Pruning is not routinely required, though they can be cut back to shape by removing any unbalancing shoots in mid to late spring. The plants can also be tidied up after flowering, taking away dead or damaged growth.
Some heavenly bamboo specialists prune their taller specimens to a more bushy shape to avoid the plant becoming too tall and leggy. This is done by layering, cutting back about a third of the stems to soil level, pruning another third to half of the desired plant height, and leaving one third of stems at full height.
A badly neglected plant that has been damaged or become overgrown can be regenerated by pruning all the stems down to soil level in the early spring. Overcrowded plants can also be thinned out by the removal of a few stems in the summer.
Nandina Domestica Propagation
Heavenly bamboo can be propagated by seed or semi-ripe cuttings. The seed from berries tends to germinate very slowly, and propagation from cuttings is easier and more reliable.
Single-node cuttings should be taken in the summer from semi-ripe wood. These should be planted into a good quality potting compost in pots kept in a bright position in a heated propagator or on a heating mat until they root. The cuttings need to be overwintered under glass in a cold frame or unheated greenhouse or with some other form of protection for the first two years.
Nodal or heeled cuttings can also be taken in the autumn or winter. These should be managed in the same way as the summer cuttings, with adequate protection over the first two winters.
Patient gardeners may wish to try seed propagation. The fruit should be removed from the plant when fully ripe, washed and cleaned, then the seed planted into trays of seed compost as soon as possible after collection. The trays should be kept in a cool greenhouse until germination occurs.
Once fully established in good conditions, some varieties of heavenly bamboo produce runners that can be separated from the main plant with a sharp sterilised knife for replanting elsewhere in the garden.
Common Nandina Domestica Problems
Heavenly bamboos are generally quite trouble free, and seldom suffer any serious problems with pests.
However, they can be vulnerable to a number of virus diseases, such as Nandina mosaic virus, Nandina stem pitting and cucumber mosaic virus. Some varieties are more susceptible than others, especially in the cases of Nandina mosaic virus and Nandina stem pitting. Leaf spot can also be an issue, creating pale green or yellow spots on the foliage.
There is no reliable treatment for any of the viral diseases, so affected plants need to be removed and destroyed, along with any fallen foliage. They can be replaced with more resistant varieties from specialist nurseries, though it is better to replant elsewhere in the garden and to ensure good plant hygiene.
Q I have heard that heavenly bamboo berries are poisonous and can kill pets. Is it safe in my garden?
All parts of the heavenly bamboo plant are poisonous. It contains chemicals that can produce hydrogen cyanide in the digestive tracts of animals, so the plant should be regarded as potentially fatal if ingested in quantity. While listed in toxicity category 4, ‘generally considered non-toxic to humans’, the berries in particular are potentially attractive and should therefore be considered toxic to pets (including cats and dogs) and grazing animals.
Dogs or cats would need to eat considerable numbers of the berries for the effects to be serious, but ingestion may cause weakness, vomiting and damage to the animal’s respiratory and circulatory functions. Rapid treatment by a vet can help to reduce the long-term effects, and while this is a serious toxin, reported deaths are rare.
Grazing animals seem to be able to detect the toxins and therefore generally avoid the plants. This is one of the reasons that heavenly bamboo is a common component of commercial landscape plantings in areas prone to rabbit and deer damage.
The relationship with garden birds is somewhat confusing, as while the berries are again theoretically toxic they attract the attention of hungry birds in the winter, generally with no apparent adverse effect when taken in limited quantities. In the United States, there have been rare cases of mass cyanide-related fatalities when flocks of birds gorge extensively on the berries. Some experts are advising clipping the fruit off the shrubs before hard weather in gardens habitually visited by berry-eating birds.
The berries also contain a chemical that is being researched for medical applications, including an antidote to the drug ecstasy.