As leaves change colour and deciduous trees are preparing for winter it seems appropriate to mention some evergreens. Many evergreens are easy to ignore throughout summer, being just green masses of leaves. But a few are more than that and attract my attention all year because of their beauty. It would not be a huge exaggeration to say that my favourite evergreen shrub is Nandina domestica. It wins on almost every account.
It is an elegant, upright plant (to 2m) with finely dissected leaves. They are so fine that this plant is often called the sacred bamboo which gives a hint at the upright, cane-like stems and narrow leaflets. It suckers, close to the main stem, to form an upright clump in time, with each stem branching rarely. Each stem behaves rather like its close relative Mahonia japonica, so it becomes bare at the base with a tuft of elegant leaves at the top, but in this case, because of the new stems from the soil, you do not get the bare-kneed look. The leaves are glossy, deep green but are richly flushed with plummy red when young to give seasonal interest. If you are lucky and your plant is happy it will also produce large, conical clusters of small white flowers and, after a good summer, lots of red berries, though I have seen these produced far more freely in the US (north west) than here.
Even without berries it is a lovely plant. Of course, all evergreens have to drop some leaves eventually and with nandina these usually turn red before they fall, providing another splash of colour. It will most likely flower best in a sunny spot but it will also grow in shade, though it will be more slender and not as well filled with foliage. A spot in part shade is probably best, especially if the soil is on the dry side. A useful feature is that the plant is poisonous so is unlikely to be nibbled by rabbits and deer (more than once).
Traditionally, this was grown near Japanese homes (hence ‘domestica) and it is curiously suitable for planting in urban landscapes. The name nandina is derived from the Japanese nan-ten. Although best in the ground, in any but wet soils, it does well in pots too and makes a less formal alternative to box and bays in patio pots. Then again, it looks perfect in any border, rising above lower evergreens and it would be a perfect companion to heathers if you feel the need to plant a heather bed. It is the little black dress of the gardening world.
It is hardy to USDA zone 5 and also tolerates more warmth than the UK and Ireland provides, evidenced by the large specimens seen for sale that have been grown in Italy. Like most of this Italian stock, they seem to be grown in concrete and they do not seem to always be the best clones. They are perfect for an instant fix but personally I would look for a better cultivar.
It makes sense that a shrub that has been cultivated in the West since 1804 (introduced by William Kerr of kerria fame) and for millennia in its homeland, should have thrown up some variations. Dozens are grown in Japan but far fewer are seen for sale in the West and not all are improvements.
Those with more intensely coloured new foliage are to be welcomed and ‘Richmond’ is one that I have seen in the States more than here. It is a glorious thing, an improvement on the species, if it is not sacrilegious to say so, with richly coloured new foliage. Here in Ireland ‘Obsessed’ is commonly available, again richly coloured, with finer foliage and, it seems, a compact habit, reaching no more than 1m. Two in pots, in part shade, have barely reached 60cm over two years but quietly fill their space and always look good.
I have mentioned ‘Twilight’ before, a slow growing, heavily variegated cultivar often flushed with pink. I am afraid mine were too beautiful to live long and I confess that I do not mourn their passing.
Which brings us to the nandina that has become almost universally seen, ‘Firepower’. This is a dwarf form with much broader leaves than the norm. The foliage is often pale green when young and colours up into a cacophony of scarlets and oranges at almost any time of year. It is certainly a neat, colourful, low, evergreen shrub.
And it is tough. I have some planted in semi-shade in heavy soil that is periodically flooded in winter and it still survives. It does not grow as well as it might but it certainly does not look stressed and it does what it is supposed to do. And yet I am not in love with it.
It is thought to be of New Zealand origin and to be a sport of ‘Nana Purpurea’. For whatever reason, it is thought that it is free of the virus that inflicts that plant, which results in the broad leaflets. I am not totally convinced because surely many other cultivars are free of virus and have narrow leaflets. It is thought to have been introduced to the USA before 1985 and presumably to Europe at about the same time.
Only reaching about 45cm high and slightly more across, it is perfect for Disneyesque landscapes and effectively covering the soil. Combined with leucothoe, heathers, coprosma, gaultheria and bright heucheras you could easily make a kaleidoscope border that needs minimal attention and that would look like a pizza all year round.
Personally, I will stick to the more upright nandinas that retain their elegance and more than a hint of the Japanese sacred bamboo. Ferns, hostas, Japanese anemones, actaea and kiregshoma seem far more appropriate bedfellows.