July 20, 2004 > NANDINA
by Pat Kite
People keep asking what will grow in dryish mostly-shade. Having spent a small fortune on plants with fib labels stating "shade, little water needed," and with a shelf-full of learned tomes which state "Plants for Shade," and similar, I have only one hardy answer: Nandina Domestica. Its alternate names are Heavenly Bamboo and Sacred Bamboo, and no, before you shudder and think I'm daft, it is not a bamboo.
Personal testimonial: I have a 15-inch-wide yard strip, bordered by concrete in front, backed by a six-foot fence, and all shaded by massive juniper trees belonging to my nice neighbor. There is some daylight sneaking in, and reflected heat from the concrete, but no sun. The junipers have outreaching roots, and drink any water available. Even Lily of the Nile and Vinca don't survive there. But, lo and behold, this early summer I put in several one-gallon sized Nandina and they are already thriving. Since I don't like to look at fences, preferring to pretend I live in some open-space paradise rather than yard-deprived suburbia, this makes me happy. Perhaps you too?
Nandina is a shrub with thin-upright stems and leaves somewhat resembling those of a bamboo. In my back yard, I have quite-elderly versions reaching 7 feet tall. But with hybridizing, newer versions are medium to ground cover size. In addition to space tolerance, evergreen Nandinas offer small white flower batches in summer, red or white berries in fall and winter, and, depending on type, delicate leaves that may turn yellow, orange or flame red in winter.
Native to China, Nandina has been grown for centuries there and in Japan, reaching England in 1804, and then us. The word Nandina comes from the Japanese word "nanten." The "heavenly" or "sacred" part derives from the Oriental tradition of planting it in temple gardens. Here's what you might look for:
N. domestica "Nana." To 18-inches with red winter leaves.
N. domestica "Fire Power." To 2- feet high and wide. In winter, a fluorescent red.
N. domestica "Dwarf." To 3-feet tall. Yellow-green leaves turn scarlet in fall.
N. domestica "Umpqua Princess." To 4-feet high, with narrow leaves giving a see-through appearance.
N. domestica "Umpqua Chief." To 6-feet high, with broader leaves. Turns bright red in winter.
N. domestica "Umpqua Warrior." To 8-feet high, fast growing, red winter leaves.
N. domestica "Alba." To 6-feet high, light green leaves and white berries.
For ground cover purposes, Nandina "Harbor Dwarf" reaches 24-inches high and will spread on its own. Use only if this is what you want - a spreading type.
Nandina varieties available are hit and miss, depending where you shop. When purchasing for a particular purpose, you absolutely must know what size you are getting. Read the label carefully. If you can't find what you want, order the thick Forest Farm mail-order catalogue for $5. [Forest Farm, 990 Tetherow Road, Williams, OR 97544-9599] Or check it out on website: www.forestfarm.com.
Do note that getting oodles of pretty red or white berries requires a boy and a girl plant. Do not ask me how to sex a Nandina. Please. Just get two or three, plop them somewhat nearby, and hope for plant romance. There are also apparently new versions that are male and female in one. However I've never seen this mentioned on a label.
In Japan, almost every garden has a Nandina planted next to the door. Legend has it that if a member of the household had a bad dream, they could tell it to the "home shrub." This would prevent any harm from befalling.
Although my Nandinas tolerate dryish mostly-shade quite nicely, they did need some watering the first month or so after warm-weather planting. The roots need time to take hold, just as ours did when we moved to the Tri-City. Hope this works for you too!
Friends of Heirloom Flowers club meets the 3rd Wednesday of each month at 10 a.m. at Sim Cottage in Shinn Park, 12151 Peralta Blvd, Fremont. For more info: 510-656-7702.