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Plant nandinas for great winter color and berries

By Gary R. Bachman

MSU Horticulturist
Coastal Research & Extension Center

A lot of great foliage color develops in the cool temperatures of winter months. Japanese cleyera foliage develops a rich burgundy patina that complements its red petioles, and boxwood foliage becomes an orangey bronze. But my favorite colorful, red-tinged winter foliage has to be nandina.

Nandina is a great shrub for providing fall color and berries. The cooler the temperature, the more colorful the plant becomes. Leaves change from bright, glossy green in the summer to a fiery array of reds and burgundies in winter.
Firepower is a great dwarf Nandina. Its green foliage transforms to red for the cooler months, with the intensity of the color depending on how much sunlight it gets.
(top) Nandina is a great shrub for providing fall color and berries. The cooler the temperature, the more colorful the plant becomes. Leaves change from bright, glossy green in the summer to a fiery array of reds and burgundies in winter.

(bottom) Firepower is a great dwarf Nandina. Its green foliage transforms to red for the cooler months, with the intensity of the color depending on how much sunlight it gets. (Photos by Gary Bachman)

Our grandparents called this plant “heavenly bamboo,” and it is known botanically as Nandina domestica. Some say this plant is overused in the landscape, but I think they say that because it looks so good. The fact that it has few pests and actually thrives on neglect only adds to its appeal.

The nandina’s foliage is exotic looking. Leaves are compound and bisected three ways. They are a bright, glossy green in the summer and shine in the winter with a fiery array of reds and burgundies.

Nandina domestica flowers in the spring with big panicles of white. In the fall and winter, the berries are the main event. The clusters of red berries start upright and hang down from their hefty clusters as the berries mature.

The plant has arching canes that arise from a central-growing crown with bamboo-like canes. If it is not pruned, Nandina domestica can grow up to 8 feet tall. Control the size easily by pruning the tallest canes. Do this after the berries have set so you don’t remove too many and spoil the winter show.

Dwarf nandina varieties have increased landscape options, but they do not flower consistently and so do not have gorgeous fruit production. Some dwarfs have burgundy and red foliage all through the year, making them a great way to add a splash of red.

In my opinion, one of the best dwarfs is Firepower. Its foliage is green and transforms to red during the cooler months. Foliage color’s intensity depends on whether it is planted in full sun or partial shade. The colors are more vivid when the plant gets more sunlight.

Dwarf nandina varieties look great when planted in masses in the landscape. They look fantastic in front of large evergreen foundation plantings such as holly or boxwood.

Be sure to buy larger containers when planting these masses. While it may be expensive, you will be more satisfied in the long run. Fewer plants are needed, and they will fill in much quicker for a finished look.

Plant in raised beds in well-drained soil, adding a good-quality layer of organic mulch. Fertilize shrubs lightly each spring with a couple tablespoons of 10-10-10 or slow-release fertilizer. Lightly scratch the fertilizer into the soil surrounding the plant.

Nandina can be divided using a sharp shovel or spade in the winter. Be sure to replant immediately or place them in containers for planting at a later date, making sure to water them well while they wait.

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Released: Feb. 3, 2011
Contact: Dr. Gary Bachman, (228) 546-1009

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