Nandina bushes (sometimes called Heavenly Bamboo even though they’re not related) are a common sight in landscaping. Deer and rabbits don’t eat them, and available cultivars range in height from one to seven feet. The fruiting varieties have beautiful berries which may persist through winter, and both they and the non-fruiting nandinas are appreciated for their seasonal foliage color. The leaves ranges from nearly pink new growth to every shade of green for the summer then deep red to purple in autumn and winter.
Like all shrubs, they look their best when properly cared for. They can be ruined if improper trimming by shearing occurs. Trimming a nandina is different from other shrubs and certainly different from a tree, but no skill is involved—just knowledge!
The most important thing to know is DO NOT SHEAR. First, shearing a fruiting nandina removes the unimpressive white flowers from which the bright berries emerge. Second, shearing removes the new growth, which is the source of seasonal leaf color. Third, shearing reveals the stubble of dead steams. Finally, shearing stunts the beauty of the entire plant by removing the gracefully arching stems of varying heights.
The proper way to control all nandinas, no matter how tall or wide, is to cut a wayward or too-tall stem off at the bottom of the plant. The plant will then produce new growth at the bottom, keeping the nandina full and graceful, yet shorter and more compact. If the nandina has gotten too large and floppy, a radical cutting of stems back to the ground may leave the plant looking a bit thin initially, but it will recover in a very short time as new growth is reinvigorated and light reaches into the plant.
Nandina was brought to the US from eastern Asia in the 1800s, and it’s become invasive in many states, both from berries being spread by birds and by extensive rhizomatous underground stems. In the Deep South, cultivation of nandina is highly discouraged. Tennessee considers nandina an emerging threat, and Kentucky has placed it on the watch list. Farther north, sterile varieties (i.e., those that don’t produce berries) aren’t considered particularly invasive as they can’t be spread by birds, and the underground spread is more limited due to cold weather.
As always, the decision to plant a non-native species needs to be responsibly and thoroughly considered. These four American shrubs work well in landscapes and can be used instead of nandina.
• Coastal Leucothoe (Leucothoe axillaris) is evergreen and has clusters of showy white flowers in spring and colorful foliage.
• Floria Hobblebush (Agarista populifolia) is evergreen and has clusters of showy white fragrant flowers in spring and colorful foliage.
• Yellowroot (Xanthorhiza simplicissima) forms a low mound of compound foliage with great fall color and sprays of small maroon flowers in early spring.
• Golden and Shrubby St. John’s-wort (Hypericum frondosum and H. prolificum) have showy yellow flower in early summer and exfoliating bark.
Every plant you use in your landscape will have different growth habits. Remember, shearing is not appropriate for all, or even many, plants. It is always better to plant something that doesn’t need constant attention to look its best and be an attractive addition to your landscape.