Nandina, aka «heavenly bamboo,» is one of those plants you either love or hate. Now those who hate it have another reason to do so. According to posts repeatedly shared across social media, nandina berries poison birds.
As far as I can tell, most or all of these reports stem from a single incident that occurred in Thomas County, Georgia in April 2009. Somebody found a bunch of dead cedar waxwings in their yards. Upon examination, the deceased birds were stuffed to the gills with nandina berries.
Nandina (Nandina domestica) is a large, semi-evergreen to evergreen shrub popular for its ironclad constitution, tolerance for sun or shade, handsome foliage, and showy red berries. The berries are among the few that last all winter. One reason is that birds don’t really like them. They only eat them after they’ve exhausted all other food sources.
The birds’s lack of enthusiasm probably is due to the fact that each nandina berry contains a tiny amount of cyanide. A couple or three berries might sicken a bird, but not kill it. Unfortunately, cedar waxwings don’t stop with a couple or three. If you’ve ever seen a swarm of these highly social birds descend upon a garden, you know they will strip a holly, crabapple, dogwood, or other berry-laden plant in mere minutes. This is apparently what happened in Thomas County, Georgia. They stripped some nandinas.
There may be other incidents of nandina-waxwing mortality out there, but I haven’t heard of them. My garden contains nandinas with berries, but I’ve never found a dead bird. So maybe the End Times aren’t here. Still, if you worry about the impact of your nandinas on berry-eating birds, Grumpy has two very easy solutions that don’t involve destroying your plants.
First, don’t let your nandinas berry. Cut off the sprays of white flowers in spring. No flowers, no berries. This also stops seedlings from popping up, which native plant enthusiasts consider invasive.
Second, buy improved, sterile nandinas that don’t flower or fruit. You’ll find a number of them in our Southern Living Plant Collection – «Flirt,» «Obsession,» «Bush Pink,» and «Lemon Lime.» In addition to not fruiting, these compact growers don’t spread by roots to become large thickets the way ordinary nandinas do. They’ve very easy to grow and require little care.
Of course, these new nandinas won’t give you the red berries people often use in holiday wreaths and other decorations, but maybe that’s a good thing if you have pets. A couple of years back, I cut some sprigs of berries at Christmas and stuck them in antique, cobalt-blue Milk of Magnesia bottles. They looked quite festive. Unfortunately, our inquisitive cat, Jean-Luc, nibbled on a couple and promptly barfed. Cats are why we can’t have nice things.