Nandina Not Bamboo

by Green Deane

in Fruits/Berries, Greens/Pot Herb, Plants

 Not So Heavenly Bamboo: Nandina

Nandina berries are controversial. Photo by Green Deane

Nandina berries are controversial. Photo by Green Deane

It’s not heavenly nor is it a bamboo, but Heavenly Bamboo is an edible, barely.

Naturalized in many part of the world including the southern United States, it is also a very common landscape ornamental known for its showy color-changing foliage.  Young leaves are edible after boiling in two changes of water like poke weed. Whether the berries are edible is in dispute, some say yes, some say no. However, most agree that all they will give you is a mildly upset tummy.  In fact that is probably a clue to the berry’s edibility.

Do not eat Nandina seeds

A native of Japan, central Asia, and India, the Nandina domestica is a shrub that grows in a clump. It has very distinctive compound leaves that are lance-shaped on multiple non-branching stems. It gives the plant a very lacy appearance. In the fall or spring depending on where you liv there are large panicles of small flowers that turn into green berries which ripen to red. There are many cultivars which brings up the issue, what do we call it? Heavenly Bamboo? Sacred Bamboo? Nandina? Or the Japanese name, Nanten? Since it is the only species in its genus I will index it under Nandina.

Regardless of what you call it it was introduced into Japan from China before 1600 and was in the United States by 1804. It prefers rich soil and will not do well in sand. Other than that preference it is a very tough and adaptable plant.  It has few pests or diseases, likes sun or shade, and can live to be over a century old.   While associated with milder climates it will grow back seasonally from roots in cooler climes. Nandina can be found as far north as Ohio, Maryland, California,  up the west coast and in Europe from England south.

The Nandina domestica also attracts wildlife, such as bees to the flowers and several species to its fruit including mocking birds, cedar waxwings and robins.  It’s also listed as a Class I invasive species in Florida and Texas. There is, however, some debate over that. Some say the plant was declared “invasive” by the very groups that profit by its removal (from state funding) so whether it is invasive or not may be a matter of opinion.

Twigs are used for flavored tooth picks

Now let us return to edibility. The leaves are easy to figure out, young and tender boiled twice. Not great but edible. But what of the fruit? Why do some authorities say they are edible and some say they are not, though it is agreed the most they give you if eaten raw in small amounts is a stomach ache. This is pure speculation on my part but since the plant does have hydrocyanic acid in it the Nandina might be like the red elderberry. With that plant the seeds in the berries have hydrocyanic acid and can upset your stomach or make you more sick if consumed in large amounts. However, if you remove the seeds from the red elderberries the pulp is edible.  And indeed, Paghat of Paghat.com in Washington says he has removed the seeds from the Nandina berries and made jelly out of them et cetera.

“They can then be used pretty much as other not-so-tasty berries,” Paghat wrote to me, “like mountain ash or hawberries, mixed with sweeter berries or apples improves them lots for jelly; or mixed with cooked pumpkin in a pie recipe.”

Edible pulp and non-edible seeds can create conflicting reports of berry edibility and berry toxicity.  All in all, the Nandina is not prime wild eats, but it is very common and persists throughout most of the season. That makes it an edible to know, if prepared correctly. Incidentally, its aromatic wood is considered by the Japanese as excellent for toothpicks. The Japanese also plant it outside home entrances to comfort those who have bad dreams… apparently seeing the pretty shrub scrubs away your nightmare. There is also one odd thing about an alkaloid the plant has, called nantenine. Curiously, that alkaloid blocks the effects of the street drug called Ecstasy. It does make one wonder how they figured that out.

Nandina is an anglicized version of the Japanese name, nanten. Domestica means for or of the house. It is pronounced Nan-DEE-nuh do-MESS-tee-ka.

Green Deane’s “Itemized” Plant Profile

IDENTIFICATION: An evergreen erect shrub to 10 feet high and five feet wide, multiple bushy cane-like stems that resemble bamboo, leaves alternate, bipinnately compound dividing into many 1 to 2-inch, pointed, oval leaflets. Young foliage often pinkish, and soft light green, can be tinged red in winter. Terminal clusters of tiny white-to-pink flowers in early summer, round berries, 1/3 inch in diameter, two-seeded.

TIME OF YEAR: Young leaves any time, berries in fall and winter.

ENVIRONMENT: Highly adaptable disliking only sandy soil.

METHOD OF PREPARATION: Young leaves boiled in two changes of water, berries without the seeds can be made into jelly but is better added to other fruits concoctions.

 

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Brent March 18, 2017 at 13:48

Invasive? I’ve had one in my back yard for over 40 years and it has not spread. Maybe 1.5 foot cluster at the bottom. Never think about it and trim about every 10 years.

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Jeffrey Muhr March 10, 2017 at 08:42

“Some say the plant was declared “invasive” by the very groups that profit by its removal (from state funding) so whether it is invasive or not may be a matter of opinion.” Yeah, right, the state and contractors trying to make windfall profits removing heavenly bamboo… Sheesh. UH, possibly it was declared invasive because it KILLS wildlife and therefore must be kept from spreading.

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Meredith March 4, 2017 at 12:48

This plant is known to be dangerous to animals and wildlife, so whether it is dangerous to humans is beside the point. If you value the natural diversity of birds in your area, why on earth would you choose an invasive plant that kills them?!

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Green Deane March 8, 2017 at 06:58

Answered above. I did not choose Nandia nor did I recommend cultivating it. I am describing it as marginally edible for humans when prepared correctly. I have not seen any reports of the species bothering animals. There are two reported incidents with over eating Cedar Waxwings in Georgia, 2009 and 2016.

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Max Storbakken February 12, 2016 at 18:31

Nandina berries are highly toxic to birds. They contain cyanide and other alkaloids that are strong enough to kill birds, including cedar waxwings in a few minutes or within an hour. Here is an article for more information: http://www.oregonlive.com/hillsboro/index.ssf/2013/12/heavenly_bamboo_the_red_berrie.html

But the take-home message is that dozens of cedar waxwings were found dead in Georgia three years ago, investigators at the University of Georgia found the cause to be Nandina berries. Bird autopsies revealed the berries lodged in the birds’ crops, as well as hemorrhaging of several internal organs.

The root of the birds’ distress is the cyanide and other alkaloids contained in the berries that produce highly toxic hydrogen cyanide, which is extremely poisonous to all animals. Sudden death may be the only sign of cyanide poisoning and death usually comes within minutes to an hour of exposure.

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Green Deane February 12, 2016 at 21:51

Birds don’t boil berries, and what affects one species does not have to affect another. Humans can eat avocados and most other creatures can’t.

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Iggy March 4, 2017 at 16:41

Why would you want to encourage people to cultivate an invasive species which kills native birds? You note that nandina attracts cedar waxwings but fail to mention that nandina kills cedar waxwings.

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Green Deane March 8, 2017 at 06:55

There are several things to point out. First I am not advocating cultivating the plant. Next the article was written many years before the first reported incidence. In both cases (2009 & 2016) it was Cedar Waxwings who had overeaten the berries, which is their nature to do as they are described as gluttons. And it was in the Georgia where the plant fruits longer than northern states. Waxwings prefer native food thus it a case of hungry waxwings in the wrong place at the wrong time eating the wrong plant. It does reenforced the ban on not eating the seeds. They contain cyanide. Also not all Nandias produce berries. I note these bird-appreciating folks also recommend killing the Nandina with Round Up, not exactly environmentally friendly. One can just cut off the blossom or the berries.

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Bob Steneck March 29, 2015 at 12:05

TJ an rocky pet,s eat every day sure seem to be more alert and TJ lifts both ears the other day they wait looking as top point for me to share them to eat rocky never cared for veggies

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Matthew March 15, 2015 at 22:48

The other day foragingtexas.com added nandina and since on of my books says this plant has cyanogenic compounds, naturally i wanted to check what my favorite forager Green Deane had to say about it. He never ceases to amaze me at how much information he can conjure about one plant. Like where do you get all the sources? Anyway im not afraid of a little possible cyanide poisoning, so I decided to clear the disinformation. I ate over 20 RAW nandina berries WITH THE SEEDS REMOVED, and had absolutely no side effects. To me they tasted very plain and were dry and mealy, but not at all bad. Personally I wouldn’t hesitate to eat 200 if I was hungry. Point is, myth busted, nandinas are completely safe when raw if you remove the seeds. And anyone who isn’t convinced, comment and I’ll eat even more. I like them. But the leaves on the other hand, anything that you have to boil more than once (including pokeweed), to me just doesn’t seem worth it.

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Donna Lenard Putney January 1, 2015 at 15:57

So….Sounds like the jury is still out? I can see why some say it is poisonous, as it contains hydrogen cyanide, however, so do apple seeds, which I eat, and so do almonds. According to Plants For a Future: “In small quantities, hydrogen cyanide has been shown to stimulate respiration and improve digestion, it is also claimed to be of benefit in the treatment of cancer. In excess, however, it can cause respiratory failure and even death.” However, the decoction of leaves is called “tonic” and so are the berries. Hmmmmm.

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eric king December 27, 2014 at 11:17

I just tried one but I spit out the seed-interesting and quite good though not delicious more like a vegetable flavour but worth a try at least once.

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Bonnie Petry August 28, 2014 at 10:58

Please note this article from the Beaverton Leader newspaper in Beaverton, Oregon talking about how this plant is extremely toxic to birds as well as highly invasive:

http://www.oregonlive.com/beaverton/index.ssf/2014/01/nandina_or_heavenly_bamboo_com.html

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Karen February 2, 2014 at 23:26

This plant is also a berberine and according to the book “Herbal Antibiotics Natural Alternatives for Treating Drug-Resistant Bacteria” (by Stephen Buhner) the lower branches and roots of this plant are high in berberine (a natural antibiotic). Other more popular medicinal berberines are Goldenseal (Hydrastic canadensis) , Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium), and Barberry (Berberis vulgaris). http://books.google.com/books?id=f2hDKZqYNO8C&q=nandina+domestica#v=snippet&q=nandina%20domestica&f=false

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