Nandina (Nandina domestica), or heavenly bamboo as it is often called, is anything but “heavenly.” (And note that it is not related to bamboo.) It has been known for years that this small Asian shrub is invasive, but relatively recent research has proven that consumption of the berries can be deadly to birds!
Unfortunately, this nasty plant is frequently planted in the landscape by either homeowners or landscape companies because of its evergreen foliage, fall foliage color, and red berries. Let’s look at the problems that Nandina poses, both for the environment and for wildlife.
Nandina is listed as invasive on many Southeastern states’ lists of pest plants. One factor that makes Nandina invasive is the berries. These are eaten by birds, and then seedlings naturally pop up here and yon. Another part of the problem is the fact that the plant is shade tolerant, allowing it to invade woodlands and forests, where it outcompetes native vegetation. In addition to spreading by seed, it also may colonize by underground runners. According to the University of Florida Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants, Nandina will regenerate from root fragments, making it challenging to eradicate.
TOXICITY TO BIRDS
The University of Georgia has been instrumental in establishing that Nandina berries are toxic to birds. The university’s involvement began in the spring of 2009, when many dead cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) were found in Thomas County, Georgia. Examination of the dead birds by Tifton Veterinary Diagnostic and Investigational Laboratory determined that the cedar waxwings had partially digested Nandina berries in their gastrointestinal tracts. The laboratory discovered that the deaths were due to cyanide poisoning, and in fact, Nandina berries may contain large amounts of cyanogenic compounds (which are also poisonous to children, and to other animals, including cats and dogs).
Cedar waxwings may be especially prone to this poisoning because they feed almost exclusively on fruits, often eating large quantities at one time. The bright red berries of the Nandina are quite attractive to the birds, especially when food supplies are low during winter and early spring. In addition to cedar waxwings, birds such as bluebirds, robins, and mockingbirds are frequent fruit eaters, so these species will also be at risk from Nandina poisoning. You can read more about this story at this link from the UGA College of Veterinary Medicine.
If you have Nandina in your garden, especially one that sets fruit, you should simply and quickly eliminate it. In the meantime, remove any berries to prevent the harmful spread of this noxious plant and to protect the birds.
Small Nandina seedling can often be hand-pulled, so keep watch in your yard and act quickly. Larger specimens will need to be dug out of the ground, removing any root fragments to prevent reinfestation. Frequent cutting or mowing may weaken the plant enough to control it, though it may pop up from underground runners. Chemicals such as glyphosate or triclopyr may be applied to cut stems for more effective control.
As noted above, Nandina is popular as a landscape plant for many reasons. It is of relatively small size (4 to 8 feet tall), the foliage is evergreen to about 10°F, the leaves are colorfully tinged with red in winter, clusters of small white flowers are borne in late spring to early summer, and red berries adorn the plant in winter to spring. There are few other plants that offer all of these benefits; however, given the many drawbacks of Nandina, please consider these native plant options:
♦ Florida hobblebush (Agarista populifolia): small evergreen shrub, colorful foliage, small white flowers
♦ Coastal leucothoe (Leucothoe axillaris) and doghobble (Leucothoe fontanesiana): small evergreen shrub, colorful foliage, small white flowers
♦ Dwarf yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria ‘Nana’): small evergreen shrub, colorful red berries
♦ Dwarf wax myrtle (Myrica pusilla): small evergreen shrub, fruit for birds
♦ Blueberry (Vaccinium spp.): beautiful fall color, fruit for the birds
If you must have Nandina in your garden (and I hope you don’t!), you can consider planting some of the dwarf cultivars that rarely bloom or set fruit. If you take this route, please keep an eye on your plants to be sure that they behave as advertised. But why even take a chance when there are other more worthy plants to choose from.