Nandina, also known as heavenly or sacred bamboo (Nandina domestica), is an attractive heat- and drought-tolerant, evergreen shrub native to East Asia and India. While not a bamboo, nandina possesses bamboo-like features with layers of fine-textured feathery-looking leaves attached to vertically straight cane-like stems. With the widespread use of heavenly bamboo and its production of berries consumed and spread by wildlife, this durable species has become naturalized in forests and woodlands. It is listed as a significant threat by the South Carolina Invasive Pest Council, a nonprofit organization that serves as an advisory council regarding all aspects of non-native invasive species control and management. In addition, the fruits contain cyanide compounds that are toxic to wildlife, notably cedar waxwings which ingest large quantities of the fruit. For more information, see the Invasiveness & Toxicity section.
To discourage the spread of nandina, remove flowers or fruit clusters. Alternatively, use cultivars that produce little or no fruit. See the Cultivars section.
Replace nandina with other species that produce attractive fruit, such as American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana), winterberry (Ilex verticillata), and rabbiteye blueberry (Vaccinium virgatum). For additional native shrub alternatives, see the list of resources on the National Invasive Species Information Center website.
For attractive flowers and foliage, plant Florida leucothoe (Agarista populifolia), sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus) , summersweet (Clethra alnifolia), hybrid distylium (Distylium x hybrida), Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica), or red-leaved loropetalum (Loropetalum chinense f. rubrum).
Nandina can reach a height of 6 to 8 feet and slightly less in width. It becomes wider over time as it spreads by underground stems called rhizomes.
The overlapping layers of fine-textured 1 to 2 ft. long bi- and tripinnately compound leaves create a unique umbrella-like form. The green oval to lance-shaped leaflets emerge in the spring, tinged with red, and gradually turn green. In the fall and winter, the leaves turn shades of red to reddish-purple, especially when sited in full sun. Nandina produces showy 6- to 12-inch long pyramidal clusters of white flowers borne above the leaves from April to June; they are followed by bright red berries that persist in the winter and early spring. Remove the flowers or fruit to prevent the spread of the species or fruiting cultivars that produce viable seeds.
Use compact cultivars that produce little or no fruit in foundation plantings, borders, groups, and containers. Nandina tolerates full sun to deep shade. Expect more vibrant colors in fall and winter when sited in sunny locations.
Unlike dwarf cultivars, the species and some older cultivars lose their lower branches to reveal bare or “leggy” leafless stems. To maintain a fuller shape, renovate the shrub, ideally before new growth emerges in the spring. The simplest approach is to cut back all of the stems at varying heights (making the cuts just above a node or bud); new shoots will emerge from below the cuts. An alternative approach is to cut back just a few of the stems. When these cut ends leaf out, the foliage will hide the long lanky stems of the tallest shoots that were left uncut. The following year cut back the remaining stems.
Occasionally remove a few of the thickest, oldest stems from the base of the plant. It improves sunlight penetration and encourages new shoots to emerge from underground stems or rhizomes.
Nandina has no serious disease or insect problems and resists deer browsing. Some dwarf nandina selections, such as ‘Atropurpurea Nana’, ‘Firepower’, and ‘Harbour Dwarf’, are infected with a nonlethal virus. This virus causes cupping, crinkling, and twisting of leaves and may also be responsible for their slow growth and reduction in height.
Invasiveness & Toxicity
Because Nandina domestica is considered an invasive plant in the Southeast, the species and its cultivars that produce abundant fruit are not recommended. Some bird species, such as cedar waxwing, northern mockingbird, and American robin, will consume the berries in winter when other food sources are unavailable. The berries contain the toxin cyanide, which causes bird mortality. Cedar waxwings are most susceptible to poisoning because they consume large quantities of fruit in a single feeding. As the berries age on the plant, they become less cyanogenic over time.
There are two groups of cultivars: (1) noninvasive selections that produce few, if any, fruits; and (2) potentially invasive cultivars that bear abundant fruit that contain viable seeds which can germinate and produce new plants.
Expect little to no fruit from these cultivars:
- ‘AKA’ (USPP19916P2 Blush Pink™) matures into a compact 2 feet high and wide mound. New growth is pinkish-red throughout the growing season with mature to deep green leaves. In fall and winter the foliage turns shades of red, green, and yellow.
- ‘Firehouse’ develops a compact mound, 2 feet tall and wide, and has green leaves that turn red in fall and winter.
- ‘Firepower’ (‘Fire Power’) is a dwarf, compact form that grows 2 to 2½ feet tall and wide. New growth is lime-green, changing to light green with reddish tints in summer. In fall and winter, leaves turn bright red. Developed in New Plymouth, New Zealand.
- ‘Firestorm’™ forms a dense 3 feet high and wide mound. Copper-red new growth matures to blue-green in summer and deep red in winter. Originated in Loxley, AL.
- ‘Greray’ (Sunray®) matures into a 3 ft. to 4 ft. high and 2 ft. wide dense mound. New growth is tinted with copper and red highlights that turn to green. Selected in El Campo, Texas.
- ‘Gulf Stream’ (‘Gulfstream’) is a dense, bushy form that grows 3 feet tall and 3 to 5 feet wide. Copper-red new growth matures to green, and the leaves turn bright red in the fall and winter.
- ‘Harbour Dwarf’ creates a dense mound, 2 feet high and 3 feet wide, and spreads by underground stems or rhizomes. New green leaves emerge with coppery tints and turn blue-green in summer. It has reddish-orange to reddish-purple leaves in the fall through winter.
- ‘Jaytee’ (Harbor Belle™) forms a compact 2 feet high and 3 feet wide mound with reddish-orange new growth that matures to green; it has reddish fall and winter leaves. Discovered in Semmes, AL.
- ‘Lemon-Lime’ (PP#24749) is a compact shrub that grows 3 to 4 feet high and wide. New leaves emerge yellow-green and contrast with the green, mature interior leaves. Selected in Locustville, VA.
- ‘Moon Bay’ is a dwarf selection, 2 to 3 feet tall and wide, with yellow-green leaves in spring that mature to green and then turn brilliant red in fall. Discovered in Houston, TX.
- ‘Monfar’ (Sienna Sunrise®) has an upright, compact, mounding growth habit, 3 to 4 feet tall and 2 feet wide. Emerging red spring leaves change to green in summer. Reddish fall and winter foliage. Originated in Earleville, MD.
- ‘Murasaki’ (PP#21391P2 Flirt™) has a dense, compact, and mounding form, 1 to 2 feet tall and 1½ to 2 feet wide. It spreads slowly by underground rhizomes. New leaves retain their red color most of the year. Mature leaves are blue- and gray-green, which turn red in winter. Discovered in a micropropagation lab in Magnolia, TX.
- ‘SEIKA’ (USPP21891P2 Obsession™) has an upright, compact form, 3 to 4 feet tall and wide. Young leaves are red and mature to green. Bright red fall and winter color. Discovered in Magnolia, TX.
Expect these cultivars to produce abundant fruit and viable seeds. Remove their flowers and fruit to prevent them from escaping and invading natural environments.
- ‘Alba’ is a 4- to 6-foot tall and wide shrub that is similar in all respects to the species or wild type except for its creamy white berries and year-round green leaves. Some authorities consider ‘Aurea’ and ‘Leucocarpa’ to be the same as ‘Alba.’
- ‘Compacta’ is a large nandina, 4 to 5 feet in high and 3 to 4 feet wide. Red-tinged new leaves turn green in the summer and bright red in the fall and winter. Produces a large number of red-orange berries.
- ‘Moyer’s Red’ has a mature size of 4 to 6 feet high and 2 to 5 feet wide. Its dense, compact form differs from the species. Bears red fruit, and the leaves turn red in the winter.
- ‘Monum’ Plum Passion® grows 4 to 6 feet tall and 3 feet wide. Red-colored narrow leaves emerge in the spring and then turn dark green during the growing season. In fall and winter, leaves turn purplish-red with red berries. Discovered in Azusa, Calif.
- Author, unknown. Sacred bamboo. National Invasive Species Information Center. U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. https://www.invasivespeciesinfo.gov/terrestrial/plants/sacred-bamboo. [accessed 20 May 2023].
- Miller, JH, EB Chambliss, and CT Bargeron. 2018. Invasive plants of the thirteen southern states. Invasive.org: Center for invasive species and ecosystem health. https://www.invasive.org/south/seweeds.cfm. [accessed 20 May 2023].
- Wilson, SB, J Rycyna, Z Deng, and G Knox. 2021. Summary of 26 heavenly bamboo selections evaluated for invasive potential in Florida. HortTechnology. 31(4): 367-381. https://doi.org/10.21273/HORTTECH04798-21.
- Wilson SB, GW Knox, Z Deng, KL Nolan, and J Aldrich. 2014. Landscape performance and fruiting of nine heavenly bamboo selections grown in northern and southern Florida. HortScience. 49(6):706-713. https://doi.org/10.21273/HORTSCI.49.6.706.
- Zona S. 2022. Fruits of Nandina domestica are (sometimes) cyanogenic and (sometimes) hazardous to birds. Poisonous Plant Research. 5:1-12. https://doi.org/10.26077/hv81-8t11.
Originally published 05/99