Common Winter Beauty

Kathy Henderson

Garden Columnist

Nandina domestica is often referred to as “Common Nan-dina.” That is because it is easily grown, tolerates almost any soil and climate condition - sun or shade and will pop up around the garden in great places and in places where it is not wanted. But there is literally nothing common about this plant. In the bleak landscape of winter the only brighter specimen is a Cardinal perched on a tree branch. The bright orange-red berries against the dark green foliage, often tinged purple just makes for a more joyful winter day.

On this plant it is easy to see the stems that need to be removed. Don’t be afraid to take a number of them out. Special photo

I think that people who do not care for Nandina domestica are those who do not know how to correctly prune it. Now begins the best time to do that. Remove an entire stem at the ground. This should be the fruiting stem - the one that has berries on it. These stems can be cut to accommodate whatever size the container that you want to use. I prefer to place these in an old churn with water at my doorway outside. They are grand to use on cemetery plots along with other evergreens. This time of year the living evergreens like holly, cedar, Leyland Cypress, and many other conifers will stay green a long time in the cool moist air.

Leave a few tall fruiting stems on the plant to enjoy in the landscape until late winter/early spring. Then cut all the fruiting stems back to the ground and place them where the birds can enjoy the seed. Their enjoyment is why you have Nandinas popping up all over the place.

By pruning in this manner you will have a wonderfully bushy, lacy plant that will continue to grow wide, not tall and rangy. You might have some tall leggy stems that are not attractive, yet have no berries. Remove them in the same manner. This allows the new growth of Spring to develop at the base of the plant and fill in all gaps.

For other Nandinas, and there are lots of cultivars that range from two feet to five feet, you can expect the same hardy nature. It is a strong group of plants that survives our floods and droughts, heat and cold very well. Some cultivars may loose leaves in severe situations, but if established, will come right back.

Another winter beauty that gets a bad name and probably this time, rightly so, is the Sapium sebiferum or Chinese Tallowtree or Popcorn Tree. It grows fast, the wood therefore is brittle, produces abundant seed and these easily grow throughout the area. It, however, does not appear to be invasive. I do not see them around this area.

I have a beautiful specimen in my garden which, at present, is in full seed display. Pruning is necessary to keep this tree in shape, but I only prune what I can reach. I need a bucket truck and I would enjoy a lot of pruning opportunities! This time of year is the best to get the beautiful seed for decoration.

Sapium grows to about thirty feet, with gray-green heart-shaped leaves, yellow flowers in the spring, followed by brown capsules which fall off, revealing white berrylike seeds. As it ages, it develops large enough roots to lift drives and walks and ruin a lawnmower blade. So it is best to thoughtfully choose the location of this tree.

The milky sap is poisonous. Sapium is not a native of North America and is seldom recommended for planting, so you may have to do what I did. Collect some seed. Or you can come see me and I will fix you right up.