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Nandinas deserve more appreciation

Nandinas deserve more appreciation

Posted: Tuesday, March 20, 2012 8:00 pm
By: By Jimmy Williams

According to a nominal perusal of my records, it has been a dozen years or so since I have talked about nandinas in any detail. You were around then but don’t remember it, so a refresher course on one of my favorite shrubs might do you in good stead.
Nandinas, in various varieties and forms, are among the most useful of shrubs. The huge swags of bright red (sometimes yellow) berries on most varieties in autumn and winter make our Yankee friends, who can’t grow them, drool into their soup.
Nandinas are among the few plants to claim the same name botanically and commonly. Sometimes, however, the straight species, Nandina domestica, is tagged Heavenly Bamboo in nurseries and box stores.
The straight stems and leaves of the plant do, indeed, superficially resemble bamboo, but there the similarity ends. Nandinas will never invade acreage at the rate that some bamboos will.
That straight, unimproved, plant will prove to be (excuse me) an “improvement” over some of the varieties that have been “improved.”
For instance, Royal Princess grows to about the same height (up to eight feet) as the species and has finer leafage, hailed as an improvement over its parent. It is no such thing. The stems are weaker and flop under bad weather conditions. The weight of berries intensifies the problem, but in any case Royal Princess is a shy berrier.
Plum Passion is another one that went to the chipper truck due to slow growth and freezing back in only moderately cold winters. It was touted as having redder-than-usual winter foliage, but mine never colored up any better than the species.
Actually, that red winter leafage is a great feature of nandinas when, and if, it happens. Some strains of the straight species stay quite green in winter, while others turn a fine red. Seedlings grown on to sizeable plants in our garden show great variation from the same parents.
Among the dwarf varieties, Firepower has been a rage since its introduction. I am in the minority, judging from the thousands seen thither and yon, in my dislike for the dumpy growth habit of the plant and its sterility that prevents berrying.
Firepower nandina has followed on the heels of cannas as workhorse plants for the front of service stations, post offices and depots. I will admit, Firepower has reliable, sometimes sensational, red winter color.
Better dwarfs, in my mind, are Harbor Dwarf and Harbor Belle. These are miniature versions of the standard plant, but with the capacity of bearing berries, albeit fewer in number. Either one will grow, after several years, to maybe three feet.
Compacta is a catch-all term for a shorter version of the standard. Said to reach four feet or so, some of them haven’t read their own hype and will reach well past that. On average, though, the four-foot figure is about right. Compacta is useful in tighter quarters, or under windows.
Another favorite is the yellow berried form of the standard nandina. Tabbed Nandina domestica Alba, it is described as white berried, but all I have, or have seen, are distinctly pale yellow. I crave a true white. When mixed with the red, a striking winter picture is provided by the yellows.
Gulfstream is another relative dwarf, growing to perhaps three feet, and with a better and thicker form than some. It will berry lightly, and has generally red winter foliage. I fancy it would make a fine container plant.
Nandina flowers are generally given short shrift, but they don’t deserve it. Actually the upright panicles of white flowers offer quite acceptable garden value.
Nandinas are one of those shrubs whose familiarity has bred indifference, if not outright contempt. It is simply another among many examples that have spoiled us. Gardeners in the north would give their eye teeth to have nandinas. They can be grown in Europe, but summers are too cool to allow fruit set. There, I have seen people hovering over a scrawny nandina, cameras clicking, to get a picture of Heavenly Bamboo, sans berries.
For years we sent a box of Christmas greenery to friends near Peoria, Ill. We include things they can’t grow, such as Arizona cypress, southern magnolia and, of course, nandina berries, which, incidentally, will last for weeks in a vase. They are the only people in the area to have nandina berries at Christmas.
From Poor Willie’s Almanack:
Thank your lucky stars for nandinas.
Editor’s note: Jimmy Williams is production superintendent at The Paris Post-Intelligencer, where he also writes this column.

Published in The Messenger 3.20.12