Companion Plants: Nandina and Buxus
Langley, British Columbia, Canada
Reprinted from the Fraser South Chapter Newsletter
I'm not sure about the "heavenly" but I do know it's most certainly not a bamboo, so common name aside, the Nandina is one of the best texture plants for any garden. Its tie to the barberry is very evident in the bright yellow wood and roots. Cultivated for centuries in native lands of China, Japan and India, it was introduced to the western world around 1800 and has earned horticultural awards for over a century.
The lacy multi-pinnate leaves and upright cane stems are perfect amid the solid bulk of conifers and the simple leaves of most of our broadleafs. The new shoots are usually colored reddish tones, and the fall and winter color is often spectacular. The summer blooms are upright clusters of small starry white flowers, but unless planted in groups and we are blessed with a long hot summer, the berry production is usually limited. No matter tho' - the foliage is compensation enough! Plants are reputedly hardy to Zone 6, but some defoliation usually occurs in these areas. Rejuvenation of older or bare plants is easy - cut out the oldest stems and new shoots will spring joyfully from the base. Otherwise no pruning of any sort is necessary.
Choose a protected site in the garden, with moist but well-drained acidic soil in full or half-day sun. Too much shade cases weak growth and inhibits the color. Established plants can tolerate times of starvation and dryness, which really boosts the color in fall, but then more leaves drop, so it's your call.
From the original species, Nandina domestica, there have been a fair number of selections made, for color, size and habit. The species can grow to 6 feet (1.8 m) with multiple stems and fits into narrow spaces, even making a lovely informal hedge or screen. Newer introductions can be chosen for smaller sizes and are therefore well suited to containers and even bonsai. Best shopping times are spring and fall to choose ones with best color. Nandina domestica is quite variable in itself and may be tall or short, have small or large leaves, and good or little color.
If you're planning a grouping and want conformity, you should choose named varieties, and choices there are quite good.
'Firepower' – unusually broad convex leaflets that color up to brilliant reds, bushy to 3 feet x 4 feet (0.9 m x 1.2 m).
'Gulfstream' – scarlet red new growth on a very bushy plant to 3 feet (0.9 m), red in fall.
'Harbor Dwarf' – very dwarf, almost groundcover, sends up many shoots from rhizomes.
'Moon Bay' – bright lime foliage turns red in fall, compact to 3 feet (0.9 m).
'Moyer's Red' – a standard size plant with broad leaflets and excellent red fall color.
'Plum Passion' – a new introduction with royal purple new growth; fairly vigorous but expect to pay a lot so far.
'Wood's Dwarf' – very bushy and compact to 18 inches x 18 inches (45 cm x 45 cm).
Others may be labeled 'Nana', 'Compacta' or 'Pygmaea' and you can be assured of a smaller statured plant.
If you want to increase plants from one you especially prize, semi-hard to hardwood cuttings in fall root well, but may be slow to grow away. Seeds, however variable, germinate reliably but take quite a while, so be patient. (We lost interest in a batch a number of years ago and ended up digging jolly little seedlings out of the compost pile several months later.)
So let's punch up our gardens with a bit more texture and shape and some really fabulous fall and winter color - I know you want to! They are so non-demanding that you won't be able to come up with a good excuse not to have one. And for those of us in more rural areas, please note that they do not appear on the deer menu, so should therefore make very useful perimeter plants.
For those of you who think of boxwood as just "that big bushy thing that goes all brown in winter," think again! There are marvelous varieties and hybrids that can fit any space in your landscape, from very tight little bun forms ('Morris Midget' or 'Kingsville Dwarf') to strict fastigiated forms ('Greenpeace') to even weepers ('Pendula' and 'Aurea Pendula').
I recently had the privilege of visiting a fascinating nursery in Hampshire, England (surprisingly - Langley Boxwood Nursery) and was absolutely blown away by the diversity of form and foliage. These plants are very slowly sneaking into our market areas, but not fast enough.
Imagine a plant with large dark green rounded leaves marbled in gold that suddenly bursts into growth in spring in stunning sunny yellow. That's Buxus sempervirens var. latifolia maculata! Picture a very dense shrub with dainty white-edged leaves, ultimately only 5 feet x 5 feet brightening up a shady corner, or a dark fence. That's Buxus sempervirens 'Elegantissima'.
Are you into container gardening? Try one with very narrow blue-green leaves ¼ inch long, that's slow growing and bushy, for a great texture contrast. That's Buxus sempervirens 'Rosmarinifolia'.
All boxwood will grow in most soils; ever so much better moist fertile soils, with partial shade. Most respond very well to constant and even heavy shearing, hence their popularity as topiary. However, by choosing the right named variety, you might just be able to throw away your hedge clippers!
Colleen Forster is a member of the Fraser South Chapter.