Plant Focus: Nandina domestica & its smaller relatives

Until recently, Nandina domestica was little known and rarely used by gardeners in the UK, but it is now gaining the popularity it deserves, perhaps because specimens of the parent plant are frequently imported from Italy, and also because new, smaller and patio friendly varieties are now readily available and are really attractive and useful plants. Both the larger parent, and its smaller offspring are worth a place in most gardens.

What is it?

Nandina domestica is known as Heavenly or Sacred Bamboo in its native China, where it is said to have heavenly powers, but it is not in any way a bamboo: it is a beautiful evergreen shrub, generally grown for its spectacular foliage. The stems of the plant are upright (hence the link to bamboo), and the narrow-ish leaves start off pinky red before turning green in late Spring, and then turning to amber, purple and red as Autumn progresses. In summer the plant has frothy white flowers, which attract a wide range of pollinating insects, followed by red berries. So, the plant looks elegantly attractive all year round.

Where can I use it?

The parent plant grows to 2m or so tall, and slowly gets wider but is easily controllable with a little pruning, and is tolerant of a huge range of conditions – full sun to partial shade, reasonably well drained soil, and most temperatures. It makes an excellent feature shrub in its own right, but I also find that it combines well with the looser form of plants like Cotinus ‘Golden Spirit’ or the upright form but contrasting leaf of Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Variegatum’. A frontal low skirt of Euonymus ‘Emerald and Gold’ also makes a dramatic scene – if you are fond of red and yellow combinations!

Which cultivar?

Lovely as Nandina domestica is, it does need a bit of space to be seen in all its glory, but there are a growing number of smaller cultivars which mean that there is a Nandina for most situations.  Probably the best known smaller variety is ‘Firepower’, although I find this plant rather too mound forming and municipal in looks, and without the elegant shape of other cultivars.  Two of my favourites are ‘Gulf Stream’, which is almost identical to the parent plant but only growing to about 1-1.2m tall, and ‘Obsessed’ (also known as ‘Seika’), which has really fiery red new foliage and which only grows to about 700mm tall – it is great in a pot or for the front of a border. Obsessed also looks lovely planted next to other small shrubs such as Mahonia ‘Soft Caress’ – a combination spotted by pure chance when I was looking after a small group of both plants prior to them being planted in clients’ gardens!

So go on, give one of these lovely plants a go – whichever one you choose, it will give you year round interest and need very little maintenance.

Image credits: cultivar413, Forest and Kim Starr, Peter Stevens, Ruth Hartnup, cultivar413, Leonora (Ellie) Enking

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