Heavenly Bamboo Plant

A bunch of red berries from heavenly bamboo, Nandina domestica
© HikoPhotography/Shutterstock.com

Written by Fern Damron

Updated: August 15, 2023

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Heavenly bamboo is one of those plants with a mixed reputation among gardeners. Some love it for its beautiful berries, ease of care, and fiery fall color while others regret ever planting it in the first place. While it is an attractive and versatile landscape plant, it is notorious for the problems it can cause for homeowners and local wildlife in many of the places it grows.

In this article, we’ll find out where heavenly bamboo is from, how to care for it, and why it is such a popular addition to gardens and landscapes. We’ll also take a look at some of the impacts it can have on local ecosystems and why many people hesitate to plant it today.

Botanical NameNandina domestica
Common Name(s)Heavenly bamboo; sacred bamboo; nanten (Japan)
SunlightDrought resistant once established. Regular watering is ideal.
WaterVery versatile. Full sun is ideal but tolerates shade very well.
SoilPrefers moist, well-draining, and slightly acidic soil.
Indoors or Outdoors?Outdoors.
Beginner Friendly?Yes, but preventing spread requires vigilance.
Special Considerations…Very versatile. Full sun is ideal, but tolerates shade very well.

About Heavenly Bamboo

Despite its common name, heavenly bamboo isn’t bamboo. It isn’t even close. It belongs to the family Berberidaceae and is more closely related to mayapples and Oregon grapes than to giant grasses.

Heavenly bamboo is native to Japan, China, and the Indian subcontinent, but arrived in North America in the early 1800s as an import for ornamental gardening. It has since escaped cultivation, inserting itself into woodland niches and establishing dense stands far and wide. Today, it appears in scattered distributions throughout the southeastern United States from Virginia to Texas and nearly everywhere southward to Florida. You’re likely to encounter it growing along forested roadsides, wood lines, and disturbed areas.

Some states, like Maryland, Florida, North Carolina, and Texas, have added heavenly bamboo to their list of invasive species. Many university extension offices and horticulture departments also discourage gardeners from planting it. Despite this, however, the plant remains a popular ornamental cultivar for several reasons.

Heavenly bamboo ( Nandina domestica ) berries.Berberidaceae evergreen shrub. Flowering season is early summer, and berries ripen to red vermilion from late autumn to early winter.

Heavenly bamboo produces bright, yellow-green foliage throughout the spring and summer. In the fall, the leaves of many cultivars turn fiery shades of red and orange.

©tamu1500/Shutterstock.com

Physical Characteristics

Although it isn’t related to bamboo, it does bear a slight resemblance. The plant has an upright growth habit, producing long cane-like stems that can group upwards of 8 feet in height. From a distance, a mature Nandina can resemble a thick colony of clumping bamboo. While new leaves appear from overlapping sheaths along the main stems, that’s about where the visual similarities end. The plant is quite easy to distinguish from true bamboo upon closer inspection.

Heavenly bamboo is a generally small shrub that produces long, pinnately compound leaves alternately from its main stem. Each leaf consists of many small, glossy leaflets between 1 and 2 inches in length. As the stems of the shrub age, they develop a thick bark with long, linear grooves.

The plant is most famous for its beautiful colors. Late in the spring, it produces pointed clusters, or panicles, of teardrop-shaped buds and flowers at the end of its stems. The flowers, once they open, bear 3–6 tiny petals and several yellow stamens in their centers. In the summer, the flowers give way to green berries that ripen to a bright red color as autumn approaches. The leaves follow suit, changing from reddish or purplish green to shades of fiery red, dark orange, and bronze. While it may shed its leaves in cooler areas, heavenly bamboo will usually retain its foliage year-round in USDA zones 8 and above.

nandina's white small flowers blooming (nandina domestica)

In the late spring and early summer, heavenly bamboo produces tiny white flowers in pyramid-shaped groups called panicles.

©mayu0616/Shutterstock.com

Toxicity

The heavenly bamboo plant, while beautiful, can be quite toxic. Many animals, including humans, are susceptible to the cyanogenic glycosides contained within the fruits, stems, and leaves of the plant. Domesticated dogs and cats as well as grazing animals like cows, goats, and horses are also susceptible to poisoning. Ingestion of any part of the plant in large enough quantities can cause weakness, dizziness, and vomiting. In severe cases, seizures, coma, respiratory failure, and even death can result.

While the plant is poisonous, severe poisoning in humans, even children, tends to be very rare. Out of 875 ingestions reported to Texas poison control centers over 15 years, nearly 80% of them involved children between the ages of 1 and 2. Out of these, 97% produced symptoms such as vomiting, abdominal pain, and diarrhea that could be managed at the site of the poisoning.

Effects on Wildlife

Wildlife in the plant’s introduced range is also susceptible to its poison. In the fall and winter, when other food is becoming scarce, berries attract several birds and small mammals. While many of these animals ingest only a few berries and survive with mild poisoning, one species of bird is especially drawn to them. As a means of survival, the cedar waxwing has developed an ability to subsist solely on fruit for months at a time. It even chooses its breeding sites based on the availability of fruit. Because of their voracious appetite, though, groups of them can strip even a prolific plant of its berries in just a few minutes. Unfortunately for them, the large quantity of cyanide produced in their digestive tracts afterward is frequently fatal.

While heavenly bamboo can harm wildlife, it is important to consider the bigger picture. It is one among many poisonous plants, however non-native it may be. Additionally, humans and their activities, aside from just the plant’s introduction, contribute far more to bird mortality overall. Colorful trash appears inside bird carcasses the world over. Collisions with windows, mirrors, and vehicles have caused hundreds of millions of bird deaths cumulatively, and domestic cats contribute millions more to that number each year. Pesticide and herbicide poisonings certainly contribute as well.

Heavenly bamboo ( Nandina domestica ) berries.Berberidaceae evergreen shrub. Many white flowers bloom in early summer and bear reddish vermilion berries from late autumn to early winter.

If left alone, the plant’s red berries will persist through fall and winter. Prioritizing the health of local wildlife, however, many gardeners remove them from the plant as quickly as they appear.

©tamu1500/Shutterstock.com

In Cultivation

Heavenly bamboo is popular in the residential landscape for more than just its beautiful fruits and fiery fall colors. The ability of this plant to spread so easily should give you some good clues as to why. Hardy in USDA zones 6–9, it is easy to grow in a range of environments and is very low-maintenance once it settles in. While a seasonal trim can help maintain a conventionally pleasing shape and size, it isn’t necessary for the plant’s health in most cases.

Despite their toxicity, birds spread the seeds in their droppings. To minimize the impact on wildlife and help manage the spread of the plant into surrounding areas, many gardeners choose to cut the berries from their heavenly bamboo in the fall. This can benefit the plant as well. The removal of the spent blooms and green berries allows the plant to focus on vegetative growth like stem and leaf production.

Another thing to consider about heavenly bamboo, aside from its ability to spread, is its staying power. It grows from an underground structure called a rhizome, which is a specially modified stem that the plant uses for nutrient storage. If a piece of the rhizome breaks off, it will develop into a new, independent plant. Getting rid of these plants requires very careful and complete removal of all rhizome pieces, stems, and seeds. Oftentimes, this process can take years.

How to Care for Heavenly Bamboo

If you already have heavenly bamboo at home or decide to plant some going forward, the following guidelines will help you keep it looking its best. We’ll also give some general tips about how to protect your soil and encourage good root growth. Again, however, keep in mind that this shrub can be hard to remove down the road if you end up disliking it.

Sunlight

Heavenly bamboo grows best in full sun and appreciates some shade during the hottest parts of the day. It is incredibly adaptable, however, and can survive in less-than-ideal conditions. While it prefers full sun, it can tolerate partial and even full shade. Groups of plants can shelter each other from intense summer heat where there is no shade.

Nandina domestica Blush Pink. The Nandina domestica is commonly known as nandina, heavenly bamboo or sacred bamboo. The leaves change color with season.

Heavenly bamboo is a beautiful and low-maintenance addition to the landscape. While it tolerates shade very well, good sunlight ensures healthy foliage and plentiful flowers.

©Fabrizio Guarisco/Shutterstock.com

Water

Landscapers and gardeners value this plant in warmer USDA zones for its remarkable drought tolerance. While it certainly appreciates frequent watering, it can survive for weeks with only minimal input once established. To help your get started on the right foot, water it regularly for the first year, allowing the soil to partially dry out in between.

When watering, you want to apply a larger volume of water over a long period. Doing so allows the water to percolate deep into the soil where it will remain for a longer period. This encourages your plants’ rhizomes to send roots deeper into the soil, giving them access to better water stores in case of drought. When you water quickly, applying a lot of water all at once, you’re more likely to create runoff that erodes the garden bed and promotes shallower growth.

Soil Conditions

Heavenly bamboo does great in light, well-draining soil that is fairly acidic. This is one reason it can form dense stands in nutrient-dense forests and along wood lines. The soil there tends to be ideal, receiving a constant influx of leaf litter and other decaying organic matter.

If this doesn’t sound like your soil, don’t worry — this plant is very adaptable. With a little amending, you can probably create an acceptable soil texture at home. As long as your soil isn’t particularly heavy in clay or lacking in nutrients, your heavenly bamboo will likely do just fine.

One of the best things you can do for your soil is to apply a top dressing of organic mulch like straw or wood chips. By covering the soil, these materials lock in moisture and slow down the rate at which your soil dries out. They also prevent erosion by preventing direct contact with rainwater and slowing down any runoff. Mulching also protects the vital communities of microbes that are responsible for the nutrient cycling that occurs in the soil. In the long term, these microbes break down the mulch into nutrients that your plants can easily access.

If you find yourself needing to amend your soil heavily to get a certain plant species to grow there, it may be worth considering a different option. While there are certainly places for non-native plants in gardens and landscapes, there are often many plant species native to the area that fill the same roles. These plants are often much easier to cultivate, as they have evolved to grow in the conditions that already exist.


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About the Author

Fern Damron is a writer at A-Z Animals who covers a variety of topics including plant life, gardening, and geology. They live off-grid in the Southeast U.S. and have been working to restore local Appalachian ginseng stands since 2020.

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