Nandina domestica

heavenly bamboo


Nandina domestica

Thunb. 1781

pronounced: nan-DEE-nuh doh-MESS-tick-uh

(Berberidaceae — the Barberry family)


common names: heavenly bamboo, sacred bamboo

Nandina is Latinized from the Japanese name for the plant, nan-ten; domestica is from the Latin domesticus, of the house or family, domestic. This species is the only member of the family.

Despite the common name, it is not a bamboo at all, but an erect shrub that can grow to a little over 2 m in height. There are numerous, usually unbranched stems that grow directly from the roots. The plant is an evergreen in tropical and subtropical regions, but is often deciduous in colder areas.

Heavenly bamboo has been grown in Chinese and Japanese gardens for centuries, and was brought to Western gardens by William Kerr, who sent it from Canton to London in 1804. In Japan, where the plant is particularly popular, over 65 cultivars have been named, and there is a national Nandina Society. In Shanghai, berried sprays of the plant are sold in the streets at New Year, to decorate house altars and temples.

The young leaves are brightly coloured pink to red, and then turn green; old leaves turn red or purple again before falling. The leaves are imparipinnate. The individual leaflets are 4 – 11 cm in length, and 1.5 – 3 cm wide.

White flowers are borne in early summer in conical clusters held well above the foliage. The fruits are bright red berries 5 – 10 mm in diameter; they ripen in late summer, and often persist well into the autumn.

dangerous 2All parts of the plants are poisonous, containing hydrocyanic acid, and are considered toxic to cats and grazing animals; but birds seem able to eat the berries with impunity, and disperse the seeds through their droppings.

In parts on southern USA, particularly in Florida, the plant has become invasive, and is capable of ousting many native plants. The plant belies its delicate appearance, and is a tough survivor. There are several cultivars, including dwarf ones, that do not have the same propensity to invade.

      • The dwarf Nandina domestica 'nana' has become very popular. Its bigger leaflets become curiously rolled or cupped.
      • Another dwarf cultivar that has recently been introduced to Australia is ‘Gulf Stream’; its leaflets are smaller and more diamond-shaped than the species, and the bush is very dense and compact. This cultivar has not been known to flower or berry, and grows to between 50 and 75 cm in height.
      • ‘Firepower’ has lime greenish-yellow leaves that turn a hot pink and a deep wine red in winter on a compact shrub about 60 by 60 cm.
      • ‘Richmond’ has tightly-packed panicles of pinkish buds that form into white blooms and are followed by masses of shiny red berries that stay on the bush for months.
      • ‘Moonbay’ has leaflets that turn red in autumn and winter, and is also a small shrub.


Photographs taken at Picnic Bay 2012
Page last updated 9th February 2019