Plant Collector: the good and the bad of nandina

There are not many plants that I actively dislike but the dwarf, coloured nandina is one. You can tell I do not care for it because I gave no loving attention at all to taking this photograph of a plant on a random street frontage in town. Yet this plant is everywhere. One of those bullet-proof, easy-care plants which is alleged to have ‘year-round interest’ with its coloured foliage so a perfect fit for non gardeners who merely want plants to act as low or no-maintenance soft furnishings in the garden.

The taller version – Nandina domestica ‘Richmond’ seen here – has sufficient aesthetic merit to justify a place in the garden

Mark was as surprised as I was when I told him I had looked it up and there is only one species of nandina and that this boring little coloured mound which is rarely above knee height is the same species as the far more graceful and attractive Nandina domestica ‘Richmond’ that we grow. I can only assume that the common name of heavenly bamboo was initially applied to the more graceful, taller type of selections like ‘Richmond’. I guess, at a pinch, one could claim it has a bamboo look to it, though probably only to those who have never actually looked at the real thing. It is actually a member of the beriberidaceae family (think berberis). Apparently nandinas only berry in warmer climates and ‘Richmond’ is self-fertile so will berry without needing the pollinator that most others do. It is worth growing – easy, reliable and low maintenance yet with a grace and elegance to it, as well as seasonal interest with its berries.

The institutional look of utilitarianism

The dwarf forms lack all of these more desirable attributes except utilitarianism. The more you have, the more utilitarian your garden will look. I have photos of a private garden which has planted a score or more of them but it is too easy to identify the place from my photos and I do not want to upset the owners.  I can, however, offer you this photo of it being used in a public garden. It will not look much different in your garden at home. But it will be easy-care.

The dwarf forms seem to be available under a whole bunch of different cultivar names with some variation in leaf tones and berrying capacity. You can tell it will be a dwarf form by the descriptions of it as clumping, compact or dwarf with projected heights of 60 to 75cm. The red berries, if you get a berrying variety, will never be as showy on a 60cm mound with coloured leaves as they are on their taller sibling with its green leaves and the panicles of berries displayed prominently at eye level or above.

In the interests of disclosure, I will admit that we have one of the dwarf nandina in our garden, though not in a prominent position. Its days are numbered. Probably in single digits since I worked out how much I actively dislike it.

16 thoughts on “Plant Collector: the good and the bad of nandina

  1. tonytomeo

    That is funny. I don’t like them either. I have seen some types of nandina do well in other gardens. I don’t mind the larger ones much, only because they don’t gets so weirdly discolored. Those would be the straight species, and ‘Compacta’, which looks like the straight species, but stays shorter, as the name implies. There are a bunch of those little rounded things in the median of a main boulevard here . . . and in several medians all over California. They are way overused, and rarely look as good as they should. Sorry for my rant.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      EXACTLY, Tony. Keep these odious little mounds for median strip plantings if need be but let us discourage their usage in private (and public) gardens. They are what I call a nurseryman’s plant – presumably dead easy and quick to produce. But they are all the same species – presumably it sets variants and freakish sports very readily.

      1. tonytomeo

        Even the ‘good’ old fashioned ones that I sort of like are quite horrid when ‘gardeners’ shear them and deprive them of their natural form and foliar texture.

  2. kathyhg7

    Yup, the city council here loves it. Generally looks garish and tatty. Thanks for the info on the ‘other’ nandina – I might have a spot for that.

  3. Maureen Sudlow

    my initial introduction to this plant was to the taller variety that was covered in those bright red berries. Since coming to Whanganui I have rather gone off as it seems to be everywhere – even one in my front garden – and is certainly boring. It appears that the smaller dwarf variety does not have those winter berries, or is it just our climate? Whatever, I will be removing the one in our garden…

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      I see some of the smaller ones are advertised as berrying but I have never been sufficiently interested to notice. Nor do I know if they are self fertile or they need a polinator. I don’t mind the tall, green one. I think it justifies its place but each to their own.

  4. Renee

    I wouldn’t mind the dwarf Nandinas so much if they were full size: I think their colourful foliage could be attractive if carefully used, it has a papery quality that reminds me of a Loropetalum. It’s the dwarf form of them that bothers me. Too small for a single specimen to be a focal point, but too garish and utilitarian en masse. Gah, I hate dwarf shrubs.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Yes – not a fan of dwarf shrubs, either. But also a bit of form, shape is a bonus. Loropetalums have it and can be shaped to wonderful plants but the Nandina? Nah!

  5. Dale Lethbridge

    I seem to remember that if one wants the glorious perfume there is another part to the name. I had it some 40 years ago. It is disappointing to find no perfume so can anyone tell me the next bit

  6. Steve

    Well that was interesting. We have one Nandina planted in a border. It generally has looked half dead most of the time but whenever I tell it its time is up it always seems to pick up enough to forgive it for another season.

  7. Dale Lethbridge

    Sorry my comment should have been on the Malus ioensis plena article. Maybe only the fragrant varieties are propagated these days. Ages ago it was not certain they would be perfumed.

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