Ornamental nandinas (Nandina domestica), also called heavenly bamboo, are common. Used as hedges, foundation plants, and focal points, nandinas, above left, are evergreen and produce showy sprays of berries through fall and winter. In moist sunny sites, they will sucker and spread readily. In some areas of the US, they are considered invasive.
What is a good native substitute for nandina? Try a winterberry (Ilex verticillata), above right, and enjoy berry laden branches, exquisite scenes in the snow and strong fall and winter interest. Winterberries do well in partial shade or sun — the sunnier the spot, the more berries. Winterberries can also be pruned into lovely vase shapes or trees. They can also be left alone and will be fine.
The native winterberry has an effervescent berry show from fall through early winter. By mid winter, the birds have eaten the berries. The US Department of Agriculture reports that up to 48 species of birds eat winterberries. Winterberries, though, do lose their leaves. If you are looking for an evergreen substitute for nandina, you might consider the american holly in shrub form.
These two shrubs, ornamental nandina and native winterberry, highlight a key difference between ornamental and native plants. Birds living in our area eat winterberry berries; they depend on those berries for sustenance through the winter. Birds generally leave nandina berries. They are not a food source for local birds as the nandinas are native to Asia. Nandina berries are also reported to be toxic to some birds. This explains why nandina berry sprays have such staying power through winter.
Two notes, during the summer, winterberry leaves are an inconspicuous green and very small white flowers precede the berries. In a small garden like ours, these shrubs make good fillers in the back of a bed and then shine once leaves drop and berries appear. Second note, you need one male winterberry to pollinate the females which bear the berries. It may sound complicated but it is not as most nurseries sell both and they are typically marked male and female.
For more information:
For the USDA fact sheet on winterberry look here.