Plant This, Not That: Replacing Nandina

by Alyssa Ford Morel, Extension Master Gardener

In the mid-70s, my family moved from Southern California to Northern. My parents purchased a typical ranch home made distinctive by the builder’s love of all things Asian. The shingles on the corners of the roof were built up into peaks and the front door had a calligraphic pattern on it.

My parents were dedicated gardeners and immediately hired a landscape architect to turn the yard into something special. Taking cues from the house, he used Asian plants including Japanese maples, Barberries, and Heavenly bamboo, or Nandina domestica.


Imported plants like the ones in that garden often do extremely well in America, partly because they are removed from the native insects that eat them. Over the years, many non-native plants have been so widely used that they are now more familiar to the average gardener than native plants. Sadly, over time, some of these exotics have shown an invasive nature.

Invasiveness is a commonly misunderstood term – it is not about what happens in cultivation. By definition, to be invasive, a plant must be non-native to the particular area and be capable of escaping cultivation and out-competing local wild plants, causing harm. A plant may be well-behaved in a garden, but a bully in the wild.

Nandina is one of those beautiful but invasive plants throughout much of the American Southeast, and is on Arlington’s Invasive List. The Glencarlyn Library Community Garden used to have  Nandina, but we replaced them with other great plants. If you would like to do the same, here are some ideas.

If you like Nandina’s colors, consider replacing it with Euonymus americanus (Strawberry bush). An example of this shrub is behind the bench next to the gazebo in the Library Garden, and you can see its mixed peach/rust/green leaves and vibrant strawberry and orange-colored berries in the fall.

If you have small Nandina that you want to replace with another small shrub, consider Itea virginica (Virginia sweetspire) ‘Little Henry,’ ‘Merlot,’ or ‘Scentlandia.’ There is a Scentlandia cultivar in the parking lot bed to the right of the lamppost closest to the library. These cultivars get to be 2 ½’ to 3′ high and wide, and have white flowers in spring and vibrant fall colors. Scentlandia has fragrant flowers.

If you want an evergreen shrub, check out Ilex glabra (Inkberry), a member of the holly family. The straight species grows 5′ to 8′ in both height and spread. The ‘Densa’ cultivar is 3′ to 4′ in height and spread.

In the Library Garden, we replaced a Nandina just inside the fence between the Native and Shady gardens with a Cornus sericea (Red twig dogwood) shrub. This graceful upright shrub has white flowers in spring and red stems that brighten the winter landscape after it drops its leaves.

Cornus sericea (Red twig dogwood) stems providing vivid color in January
Photo © Elaine Mills

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