Amp up your garden color and serve up a feast for your visiting birds.
Nandina (Nandina domestica), also called heavenly bamboo, has been widely planted throughout the suburban landscapes of our Chesapeake watershed. It is durable, has evergreen foliage, and requires virtually no care. It grows well in full sun to part shade. The sprays of berries last almost the entire year round and combined with the evergreen foliage, make it a staple for landscapers.
Nandina is native to India, China and Japan. In Japan, nandina is considered to be good luck and is often given as a housewarming present. I presume there are birds native to those areas that feast on its berries. Here, it is a bit of a different story.
Nandina is considered invasive in many parts of the US including the Chesapeake watershed. Nandina, first brought to the states in the early 1800s, has spread into natural areas by seed dispersal. It is also reported that a few of our native birds, when hungry enough, will eat nandina berries which can be toxic to them.
Nandinas have long lasting sprays of red berries, are used as evergreen shrubs, and have good fall color. The good news as always: there are lots of native substitutes that are easy to find.
Substitutes with Spectacular Red Berries
If you are looking to replace those nandina berries, a mature winterberry (Ilex verticillata) in full sun, fits the bill. Winterberries are easy to grow, can be pruned as a focal point vase shaped shrub or small trees or as hedges and feed birds in late fall through winter. The fall berries are incredible. If you have not grown winterberry, this is a spoiler alert. A flock of robins can eat all of those berries is about 15 minutes on a winter day. And...of course, that is the whole point!
Like nandina, winterberry grows in full sun and part shade but produces more berries in sun. Also, please note during the summer, winterberry leaves are an inconspicuous green and very small white flowers precede the berries. In a small garden like ours, these shrubs make good fillers in the back of a bed and then shine once leaves drop and berries appear. Second note, you need one male winterberry to pollinate the females which bear the berries. It may sound complicated but it is not as most nurseries sell both and they are typically marked male and female. They should be located within about 50 feet of one another. The male plants are smaller and pretty easy to tuck into an out of the way spot.
Another native with great berries is red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia). This easy to grow shrub also does well in full sun to part shade in a range of soils. Along with the berries, red chokeberry does have pretty stunning fall color as well as a nice bloom of white flowers in late spring. This grows tall, to about 8 feet or so, and about 4 feet wide.
Substitutes that are evergreen shrubs
Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) is native to the southeastern US including Virginia. This smaller leaved holly can be grown as a shrub or small tree. Like nandina, it grows in full sun to part shade in a range of soil conditions. Please note that Zone 7 is this plants' northern most range. I grow it easily here in Washington DC and did grow it easily in Baltimore as well.
Inkberry (Ilex glabra) is an excellent evergreen substitute for nandina in full sun or part shade. Inkberry is a reliable evergreen shrub and can be used as a hedge, foundation plant or a low screen, just like nandina.
Sometimes, it can take two plants to make up for one. Let's say you want the berries and the strong evergreen function of the nandina. Try alternating inkberry with winterberry as along this fence line.
A shrub with that Amazing Range of Fall Color
Maybe you are taken in by the range of green to orange to red colors of the nandina. If you are looking to replicate the color wave with a native, you might try a native possumhaw viburnum (Viburnum nudum). The fall color range is stunning and tends toward the green to red tones as the nandina does. The straight species of this shrub is large, growing to 12'. There is a commonly available smaller cultivar viburnum nudum 'winterthur' that grows to 6'.
You can really use a whole range of plants to substitute for nandina once you figure out exactly which attributes you want to replace. Removing nandinas is relatively easy as the root balls stay somewhat contained. It is good to go back to spots where you have removed them a couple of times after to see if any roots left in the ground have pushed new growth. This is not one of those plants you can just cut off at the ground level and expect to have it die away. It does have to be removed.
I have read that to prevent the spread of nandina, some homeowners and gardeners cut the berry sprays off or look to buy newer cultivars that do not produce berries. It seems for the time those endeavors will take, replacing nandina with a shrub that gives you three seasons of interest and feeds your birds safely would be a lot more fun!
Thank you for gardening for the Chesapeake.