Dumbarton House Featured Flora: Nandina

Written by: Kathy Clare, Garden Volunteer

Nandina domestica

Nandina domestica is commonly called heavenly bamboo or sacred bamboo. It is native to eastern Asia from the Himalayas to Japan and was brought to the West by William Kerr, who sent it to London from China in 1804. The plant belongs to the barberry family and gets its bamboo nickname because its upright cane-like stems and delicate compound leaves resemble bamboo. It can grow 4 to 6 feet high with a spread of 2 to 3 feet. The leaves are divided into many 1 to 2 inch pointed oval leaflets. They are a copper color in spring, turn a light green in summer and change to a reddish purple in the fall. The pinkish white flowers appear in late spring and are followed by clusters of red berries from fall to spring. The berries are poisonous to people, pets and birds as they contain a compound that decomposes to hydrogen cyanide. Excessive consumption of the berries during the winter will kill birds such as cedar waxwings, robins, and northern mockingbirds.

It is considered an invasive plant in the Southeastern United States and was added to the Maryland invasive plant list in May 2017.

In Shanghai berried sprays are sold at the New Year for the decoration of house altars and temples. Alice M. Coates, an acclaimed authority on the histories of flowers and plants, writes that in the Far East it is believed that nandina’s heavenly properties give it the power to dispel bad dreams. In Japan nandina is planted near doorways so that when you wake from a nightmare, you can step outside and tell the shrub your dream so no harm will follow.