Dear Readers, I have always loved bright colours, and I come by it honestly: my Mum was always clad in shades of pink or turquoise or purple right up until the last months of her life. But she used to get very frustrated, because what she could buy was often largely dictated by what was ‘in fashion’.
‘It’s all mucky colours’ she would complain when the shops were full of camel and beige and taupe. She had a particular loathing for khaki, because it combined the attributes of ‘being green’ (an unlucky colour apparently), being militaristic (if there was one thing that Mum loathed it was an epaulette or a pair of cargo pants) and being neither green nor brown.
And what, you might ask, has this to do with heavenly bamboo? Well, there are fashions too in garden plants, and for many people, what they buy is limited to what the garden centre has in. Not everyone goes to specialist nurseries, or trusts the quality of the plants that they can buy online, and so if the garden centre is wall to wall petunias/Clematis montana/heavenly bamboo, then that is what they will have to buy.
In this past week, I have been falling over this plant in a variety of locations – in the gardens of East Finchley, in the municipal beds of Islington and in the planting at Coal Drops Yard in Kings Cross. It is undoubtedly an attractive plant, but what, I wonder, is making it so ubiquitous? And does it have any of the pitfalls of ‘true’ bamboo (some varieties of which can take over your entire garden while you are hanging out the washing).
First things first. As mentioned in a previous post, heavenly bamboo is not a bamboo at all, but a member of the barberry (Berberis) family. It comes from East Asia, from the Himalayas to Japan, and its Latin name ‘Nandina‘ comes from the Japanese word ‘nanten‘, or ‘domesticated’. It has indeed been grown as a garden plant in Japan for hundreds of years, and there are many cultivars: the early spring foliage is pink in colour in some varieties, and it can also display scarlet autumn colour, which makes it a plant that punches well above its weight in a small garden. It arrived in the UK in 1804 but seems to have only become popular as a garden plant in the last few years – I don’t remember it at all when I was growing up, but feel free to correct me, as always!
Another reason for growing this plant might be its berries, which look most inviting, but herein lies a problem. Heavenly bamboo is toxic to birds and animals – the fruit contains compounds that can decompose to hydrogen cyanide, and in North America, cedar waxwings, those voracious gobblers of berries, have been poisoned by the plant, where it is often used to provide rabbit and deer-proof fencing. To read about one such incident, have a read here. I hope that we don’t start using the plant so extensively here in the UK, because I would fear for our berry-eating birds such as fieldfares and redwings, plus our occasional visitors the Bohemian waxwings. Fortunately, at the moment we tend to stick to pyracantha for municipal planting which has no such problems. For my North American readers, suggested alternatives to heavenly bamboo include American beautyberry (Callicarpa Americana) and Northern spicebush (Lindera benzoin), and there are some other ideas (plus a good explanation of why waxwings are particularly threatened by this plant) in the article here.
Heavenly bamboo is also considered to be an invasive plant in several parts of Florida and other southern states of the US. In spite of its toxicity birds often spread the seeds (presumably it’s only toxic if lots of berries are eaten) and the plant has rhizomatous roots that spread vigorously in the right conditions. It’s yet another example of a plant that is revered in its native habitat, and becomes a right old pain in the backside when it’s introduced somewhere else.
In Japan and in China, heavenly bamboo is a plant associated with New Year – the foliage and berries are brought into the house and placed on the domestic altar. The stems were put around the necks of children to ward off whooping cough, and the plant was often grown close to the house to ward off fire and to bring good luck, and near to outdoor wash basins to ward off the evil eye. In Japan, it was said that if you shared your nightmares with heavenly bamboo, it will protect you from your darkest fears. More pragmatically, in China the stems have been used to make chopsticks.
Medicinally, all parts of heavenly bamboo have been used by practitioners, particularly for coughs, asthma and malaria. I note with some interest that it was also used to ‘quieten drunkards’, which is quite an attribute. It was also used as an antidote for food poisoning from fish, although that does feel a little bit ‘out of the frying pan and into the fire’ for my liking. The berries are also said to enhance virility, presumably if they don’t kill you first. You can read all about the medicinal uses of the plant on Steven Foster’s Herbalblog, and very interesting it is too.
I was rather intrigued by another use for heavenly bamboo, which is exclusively Japanese. For over 250 years, ‘snow hares’ or ‘snow bunnies’ have been made out of snow, with ears made from the leaves and eyes made from the berries of the plant. The results are very cute, as you can see. They were often made for ‘snow viewing parties’, along with other sculptures, in a similar vein to the snow men that we build but originally rather more formally. The advantage of something so small is that it can be brought into the house to be admired too.
If you look at the picture below you will see a snow hare in the bottom left of the painting, which is from Utagawa, Toyoharu, who lived from 1735-1814. The painting was probably made in 1772-4. There is a very interesting blog about the derivation of the ‘snow hare’ and its importance in Japanese and Asian folklore here.
Now, at this point I would usually be looking for a painting to share with you all, and, as you imagine, there are many lovely portrayals of heavenly bamboo, usually weighed down with snow and with innocent birds feasting on the berries (let’s hope they aren’t going to eat too many). But instead, howsabout this. This is a Noh costume, probably worn by an actor depicting an upper class woman, and dating to the second half of the eighteenth century. It is decorated with depictions of books (suggesting the rise in literacy of the period) and yes, those auspicious heavenly bamboo branches. Just look at that beautiful embroidery. I am awestruck.
Now, try as I might I cannot find us a poem this week, but as I think we’re all in need of as much beauty as we can muster, here are some more exquisite objects. Firstly, there is a fan depicting heavenly bamboo and two little flying insects (Bugwoman approves, of course). It was made in the first third of the Eighteenth century, by Jiang Tingxi, who lived from 1669 to 1732. Then there is a second fan, displaying a rather less happy outcome for at least one of the invertebrates but there’s nature for you. The fans came in a beautiful case, and are part of the Harvard Art Museums collection.
Whenever I despair of the stupidity, cupidity and sheer cruelty of human beings, our short-sightedness, our inability to do the right thing in the face of overwhelming evidence, our fearfulness and small-mindedness, two things help. Firstly, I think on the kindness and bravery of ‘ordinary’ human beings, who are often overcoming personal difficulties of the most extreme kind while seeking to make the world a better place for the rest of the extended community, human and animal alike. And secondly, I look at the beautiful things that people have made over the centuries and I feel the act of generosity that goes into any creativity, the way that people have always wanted to share their unique vision with others, and how greatly the world has been enriched and enlarged by these acts. Maybe, just maybe, we are not finished yet.
Photo One from CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=658395
Photo Two by By KENPEI – KENPEI’s photo, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1508991
Photo Three from https://www.mamalisa.com/images/blog/maxresdefault-youtube.jpg