Heavenly bamboo or sacred bamboo is a fine-textured, graceful evergreen shrub with the scientific name of Nandina domestica. It’s not a true bamboo plant, however. But, because the name has the word “bamboo” in it, many people assume it’s an invasive species they should avoid planting. Unfortunately, this means that many people miss out on this gorgeous plant.
Heavenly Bamboo – A History
Originating in China, the heavenly bamboo plant was first introduced to Japan before the 16th century. Since its introduction, heavenly bamboo has naturalized in Japan’s southern and central districts. When China first introduced it, heavenly bamboo was a popular traditional decoration. The berries, flowers, and leaves were showcased in ikebana. This is an art form where people plas flowers, grasses, leaves, and branches in a vase strictly following a set of rules to create centerpieces.
You’d also find heavenly bamboo in kadomatsu during the Japanese New Year. This decoration graced gates or on the sides of doorways to help usher in good fortune. The Japanese believed that putting heavenly bamboo in this arrangement made a suitable temporary home for the gods.
In 1804, heavenly bamboo arrived in England where it earned the botanical name of Nandina. This is a Latinized version of the traditional Japanese name for this plant. Sacred bamboo or heavenly bamboo refer to the plant’s stems. They’re narrow and tall but they have a rough texture with a brown coloring. The larger leaves are also very different from bamboo’s foliage. It has bright yellow roots that identify it as a member of the barberry family.
In the United States, there are several varieties of heavenly bamboo available. There are varieties of heavenly bamboo that have colorful leaves, and you can find dwarf varieties. In the Southern portion of the United States heavenly bamboo is widely considered to be an invasive species. Without care, a single plant can spread and turn into a dense thicket.
Many of the newer heavenly bamboo cultivars don’t bear fruit or flowers or have underground stems to spread, so you can easily and safely plant them in your yard. However, bird lovers shouldn’t have heavenly bamboo that has fruit because it can be toxic. Another option is to deadhead the plant’s flowers to prevent it from fruiting.
The bright berries on this plant make it a nice decoration piece in centerpieces or focal points in the room.
Growing and Caring For Heavenly Bamboo
One of the first things you have to know is how to grow a heavenly bamboo. There are three ways you can start your heavenly bamboo plant, and two are much faster than the other. We’ll outline all of them for you below.
Method One – Seed
If you have a heavenly bamboo plant in your yard somewhere, you’ll find one to three seeds nestled inside the red fruit. You have to remove them from the fruit pulp and clean them. You should wear gloves during this process as heavenly bamboo’s berries are poisonous. There are three stages to germinating heavenly bamboo from seeds. To start, you have to stimulate winter conditions for at least three months.
Get a plastic bag and some sand. Make sure the sand is slightly moist and place the seeds in the sand. Put the bag in your refrigerator for three months. You can’t let the seed dry out, so routinely check the bag’s moisture content and add more water if it’s necessary.
Once the three months are up, remove the bag from the refrigerator. Remove the seeds from the sand and gently rinse them off. Get a starter tray or pot and fill it with rich potting soil. Keeping the seed five centimeters apart, press them into the soil to a depth of one centimeter. Moisten the soil.
Set the pot in a half-shaded area like a window sill and keep the soil consistently moist. The seeds can take between one and six months to germinate. If you have a transparent hood to put over the pot, this can speed up the germination process. If you use this hood, air it out daily to prevent mold growth. Once your heavenly bamboo sprouts, keep giving it water until it’s large enough to transplant.
Starting your plant from seed is very rewarding when they grow, but it can take months to see results.
Method Two – Cuttings
Using cuttings from your heavenly bamboo plant is a faster way to propagate a new plant, but the new heavenly bamboo will have every characteristic of the parent plant. If the parent plant is healthy, this won’t be a problem. Also, it’s an easy process from start to finish. During the summer months, cut a semi-wooded twig that isn’t flowering from the parent plant. The cutting should be between 10 to 15 centimeters long.
You should have a leaf node at the bottom and top of your cutting. Remove every offshoot in the lower half of your new cutting. Get a pot with rich, moist potting soil and plant your cutting straight into the soil. Backfill around your cutting and add a transparent hood. Air it out every day to prevent mold growth, and keep the soil moist.
Once your cutting roots into the pot, it’s time to replant it into a larger container. If you live in areas where it drops below zero, you’ll want to keep your heavenly bamboo in containers because they can’t survive the cold very well.
Method Three – Propagation
The final method for planting a heavenly bamboo plant is through propagation. You’ll only get a few young heavenly bamboo plants through this method each time you do it, but it has a very high success rate. To propagate new plants, start in March and April.
Dig around your existing heavenly bamboo plant with a grave fork and gently lift the whole root ball out of the ground. Cut or saw the root ball in two or three sections, and each section should have at least two shoots growing out of it. Plant your new shoot in a partially shaded site at least 1.5 to 2.5 meters apart. Before you plant them, add compost to the holes. You should also trim back the roots and make sure the heavenly bamboo shoot has a constant supply of water.
Digging up the plants and cutting them apart is a quick way to get more with little chance of them dying.
Planting Your Heavenly Bamboo in a Container – Step-by-Step
This particular plant does exceptionally well in containers. Once you’ve decided how you want to propagate it and have a young plant, it’s time to get set up to plant it. Luckily, this is a relatively straightforward process, and the plant is very forgiving.
Step One – Ready Your Container
The first thing you have to do is get your container ready for your new plant. Pick out a container that is big enough for two or three years’ of growth. To get an idea, look at your plant’s root ball. You want your container to be at least six inches bigger than the root ball to ensure it has enough room to grow.
Add a thin layer of pebbles or stones in the bottom of the container and line over the stones with landscape fabric or shade cloth. These layers will prevent the drainage holes from plugging and retaining water. Layer in a loose mix of loamy but rich soil with a higher nitrogen content. If you’re worried about the nutrients, you can mix some compost in before adding your plant.
Step Two – Plant Your Sacred Bamboo
Very carefully remove your plant from its nursery pot. The goal is to lift the plant from the pot without breaking the stems or damaging any part of it. If it’s stuck due to the roots, don’t force it to come out. Instead, get scissors and gently cut the pot away from the plant. Once you get the plant out, gently loosen the roots from the soil around the root ball’s surface.
Add a small layer of your soil mixture to the bottom of your plant’s new container on top of the landscape fabric. Set your plant in the container on top of this thin soil layer, and adjust it so it’s sitting upright. You want the root ball to sit 1-inch or 1 ½-inches below the container’s rim. Add or remove soil until you get it to this height. Gently backfill the potting soil around the plant. Tamp the soil in place as you go, and continue until you get the potting soil at an even level with the top of the root ball.
Making sure you have the correct soil is essential for helping your shrub take off and thrive.
Step Three – Water
Once your plant is in place, water it thoroughly until you see water starting to drain from the holes in the bottom of your container. When the potting mix settles due to the water, add more until it’s even with the top of the root ball once again.
Step Four – Apply Mulch
To help conserve moisture and prevent the soil from drying out, add a ½-inch layer of your preferred mulch. This could be pine bark or wood chips. Water it once again, making sure the mulch and soil is thoroughly soaked through. Keep watering it at least once a week or more if you notice the soil getting dry.
Eventually, you’ll have to repot your plant as it outgrows the original container. This should happen once every two or three years. Repot your plant in the spring when you perform your annual cut back or pruning. The new container should be at least ⅓ larger than the old one. The larger your new pot is, the more it’ll encourage your plant to increase the root growth, and this boosts how much it flowers.
To repot your plant, add your rocks and landscape cloth to the bottom of the container to encourage drainage. Fill in a thin layer of rich potting soil. Gently remove the plant from the old pot, shake off the excess dirt, and loosen the roots.
Reposition the plant in the new container so the root ball sits around an inch from the lip of the pot. You may have to add more soil into the bottom of the pot until you get your desired height. When you look at the roots, if you see any rotten portions, now is the time to cut them out. They’ll be discolored and soft. Dust your plant’s root ball with stone powder or charcoal ash, and rinse the stem if you notice any pests.
Backfill the loose soil around your plant, stopping and watering it at the halfway point. Continue filling in your container until you get to the top level of the root ball, tamping the soil in place as you go to get rid of the air pockets. When you finish, give the entire plant a good watering. You can apply a thin layer of mulch if you like at this point.
Be very careful when you repot your plant so you don’t damage it. Also, use bigger pots to allow your plant’s roots space to grow.
Planting Your Heavenly Bamboo Outside – Step-by-Step
Although this plant does better in containers than it does outside as a general rule, you can plant it outside and have it thrive in mild climates that don’t drop below zero in the winter months. The process for planting outside roughly follows the container planting method.
Step One – Prepare Your Space
The first thing you want to do when you prepare to plant your shrub outside is to create your hole. You should dig the hole so it’s no deeper than the plant’s root ball, but it should be at least two or three times wider. The wider you dig the hole, the better off your plant will be. Put the soil that you dug up around the hole.
Step Two – Create the Best Soil
The native soil you dig up may not be optimal for your new shrub to thrive, so you’ll have to amend it. If you have a compacted soil like a dense clay, you want to mx in a 50/50 ratio of bagged soil to the dense soil. If you have fast-draining and sandy soil, mix in some peat moss or topsoil to help the area retain moisture. For people that have loamy, fertile, and well-drained soil, you shouldn’t need to amend anything.
Step Three – Place Your Plant
When you remove your plant from the nursery pot, be very careful you don’t damage it. Lift the plant straight up from the pot. If it sticks, cut the container away. Pulling or forcing the plant out will damage it. When you get it out, use a claw tool or your fingers to loosen the root ball around the surface.
You want to place your plant in the hole so the root ball is at or around an inch above the ground level if you have well-draining soil. For soil that tends to hold water after a rainfall and drains very slowly, the root ball should sit two or three inches above the ground level. If you dug the hole too deep for the soil type, backfill it until you can sit your plant at the proper height. If you don’t, the plant can rot.
Should you have soil that is constantly wet or soggy, you have to improve the drainage before you plant anything. Instead of digging a hole, make a raised dirt mound above ground level. You can plant your sacred bamboo here and the water will naturally drain away.
You want to make sure your plant is in the correct position before you backfill it to avoid damaging it from moving it around.
Step Four – Backfill
After you get your plant in the hole, hold it straight up. Take your other hand and start to backfill the soil. Work around the root ball and take time to tamp it in every time you add more soil to get rid of the air pockets. When you get halfway done, soak it. Continue to fill in the dirt until you reach the top edge of your root ball and the ground level.
If you planted your bamboo above the ground because you have wet or soggy soil, taper your soil. There should be more soil in the base that gently tapers up to the top of the plant’s root ball. If you cover the root ball completely with soil, the plant will eventually suffocate.
Step Five – Water
When you get all of the dirt back in around your plant and you’re happy with the placement, it’s time to water. You want to water the plant so the water sinks to the bottom of the root ball, so saturate the ground. Depending on the soil type, this could take several minutes to complete.
Step Six – Apply Mulch
Mulch will help you suppress weed growth and conserve moisture. Apply your mulch around the base of your plant until it’s approximately 1 or 2-inches thick. Spread a 3 to 4-inch layer of pine straw around your newly planted shrub. The mulch will start to decompose and add nutrients to the soil that your plant can use to grow. Leave the root ball exposed. If you don’t, this can cause bark rot.
Your mulch will help your plants retain moisture while driving weeds away.
General Care Instructions for Heavenly Bamboo
Now that you know how to care for this plant, you want to maintain it for years. This means getting into a watering routine and making sure it has optimal growing conditions.
Water is going to be essential through every stage of the growth process. As an evergreen shrub, heavenly bamboo requires weekly watering if you don’t get any rain. Unless you have small puddles of water forming on the ground around your heavenly bamboo, you’ll need to water it.
However, once your plant establishes itself, you can back off on the watering. It’s actually pretty drought-resistant. If you notice the leaves starting to turn yellow or droop, this is a sign that you should start watering it until it greens up again.
The soil around your heavenly bamboo plant should be rich in nutrients and well-permeable. The pH can range between 4.5 and 6.0 for optimal growing conditions. Ideally, you want a sandy loamy soil with a higher nitrogen content. You can consider adding perlite to the soil around your heavenly bamboo to encourage even water drainage and prevent rot.
The heavenly bamboo does well in partial shade and full sun. When you plant it in partial shade, you’ll lose some of the rich red coloring to the leaves, and you’ll get a more leggy growth pattern. Your plant will do best in an area that gets bright sunshine in the morning hours and partial shade in the afternoon. It should be an area that has protection against the wind.
If the temperature drops below -12 degrees F, your heavenly bamboo will only be able to survive for a short time. In places that get cold winter months, you should consider planting it in a container and bringing it indoors. It’ll grow better in milder climates that don’t get severe frost or snow and partial sun.
This plant can survive in partial shade, but it does better in full sun conditions.
Ideally, you’ll fertilize your heavenly bamboo in either March/April or June/July to keep them healthy and encourage blooms. If you grow them in containers inside, fertilize them starting and April and going through August once every month. Dry fertilizers work better than liquid applications. If you choose to use liquid fertilizers, you’ll apply it every two weeks with water to help it soak into the soil and get to the plant’s root system.
While you shouldn’t have to give your plant a huge cutting or pruning each year, it is a good idea to at least trim away the dead or dying branches. If you have long shoots, you can cut them back when they finish flowering or earlier in the year around March. You should cut them back by at least ⅓ of their current length.
For maintenance pruning, focus on cutting away dead or frozen branches. If there are branches that seem to be too close together, take time to trim them away and remove them from the shrub.
This is a relatively slow-growing plant. Unfortunately, this means that a lot of people underestimate how much space it’ll need when it reaches maturity. If you plant them to close together, weaker plants won’t make it. At their largest, this plant can get up to eight feet high and have a two to five foot spread. When you plant them, keep them at least three or four feet apart, and be mindful of anything they’ll overshadow.
If you want your plant to have a fuller appearance, cut the stalks or canes at staggered levels. Leave some shorter than the others. Doing this will encourage healthy growth, and it’ll ensure that you don’t end up with patchy, bare areas.
With the right growing conditions and a little care, your shrub will thrive year in and year out while providing a pretty look to your yard.
Heavenly bamboo is a bright, pretty ornamental shrub that can add a splash of color to your home or yard. With a little care and attention, you can make this shrub thrive all year round, and our comprehensive guide showed you how to do just that.