North American gardeners love native plants. At nearly every talk I give, someone asks me for a list of native plants to include in the landscape.
As interest in native plants grows, their use in main-stream gardening has increased as well. The most garden-worthy native plants have become common staples in many contemporary landscape designs, for all the right reasons. When properly selected and planted, native plants tend to be well-adapted to local environments, and many have limited pest problems.
To rise to the top of the gardener’s “must-have” list, however, native plants have to deserve a place in the garden. Consider these native shrubs, each with a peak season, but also offering characteristics that stand out in the garden year round.
Best in spring
• Spicebush (Lindera benzoin): Commonly found in the forest understory, spicebush blooms with airy sprays of tiny yellow flowers in early spring before the leaves emerge. The leaves turn yellow in fall, with small red fruit ripening on female plants.
When bruised, stems emit a pleasant, spicy fragrance that gives the plant its name. Well-suited for shade, spicebush will grow in sun, provided the site isn’t dry. Plants grow 6 to 12 feet high and wide. Spicebush can be somewhat difficult to find in the trade, but can be found online.
• Sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus): Sweetshrub is at its best in spring, when the velvety-maroon flowers unfold to emit their spicy fragrance. This understated native shrub is at home in shade or sun, provided the soil is well-drained.
In sunny, open sites, sweetshrub can grow to 10 feet high and wide with a respectable floral display. Fragrance varies on seed-grown plants, so try to find a sweetshrub in bloom to test the fragrance before buying, or select a cultivar with guaranteed fragrance.
The ‘Athens’ cultivar has fragrant yellow flowers, and ‘Edith Wilder’ has fragrant maroon flowers.
• Fothergilla (Fothergilla gardenii and Fothergilla major): Fothergilla lights up the garden in both spring and fall. Rounded, creamy bottle-brush flowers cover the shrub in spring.
The fragrant flowers are favored by spring pollinators, and remain effective for almost two weeks. Through the summer, fothergilla is clad in bluish-green leaves. In autumn, those leaves turn to shades of orange, yellow and scarlet.
Plants are relatively problem-free, and most deserving of a place in the garden. ‘Mt. Airy’ is a cultivar selected from the Mount Airy Arboretum in Cincinnati, chosen for its striking fall color, blue-green leaves in summer, abundant flowers and overall vigor.
• ‘Henry’s Garnet’ Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica ‘Henry’s Garnet’): Itea is without a doubt one of my favorite plants for all it offers in the landscape.
In spring, shiny young chartreuse leaves unfold; these darken as summer approaches. Creamy arching spikes of fragrant flowers are formed on old wood in early summer, brightening the garden at a time when few other shrubs are in flower. ‘Henry’s Garnet’ forms inflorescences up to 6 inches long.
In autumn, sweetspire turns shades of red, orange, yellow, purple and scarlet, with color stretching as long as Thanksgiving (my friend uses cuttings from her itea every year to color her Thanksgiving table). Many of the native shrubs discussed here can become large additions to the landscape, but ‘Henry’s Garnet’ grows to barely 4 feet high and wide.
• Bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora): Some landscape designers insist that every garden needs one, and only one, bottlebrush buckeye. Although this shrub can take time to establish itself in the garden, once it does, it demands attention.
At maturity, bottlebrush buckeye can form a wide-spreading, multi-stemmed colony reaching up to 15 feet in height. In summer, stems are topped with creamy panicles that can be 12 inches long.
Favored by butterflies, bottlebrush flowers are visited by swallowtails and fritillaries searching for nectar. This shrub is well-suited to both full sun and partial shade, making it an excellent “edge of the woods” addition. Plants tend to be hard to find (or expensive) in the trade because they are difficult to propagate, but well worth the search or expense.
• Common ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Diablo’ and ‘Luteus’ and many more): Ninebark has been used in the garden for nearly 300 years, but has found renewed popularity with the introduction of new cultivars, including ‘Diablo’ and ‘Luteus.’
‘Diablo’ has purple leaves that hold their color through most of the summer, making it an interesting addition to the back of a mixed sunny border.
‘Luteus’ offers light yellow leaves that gradually change to green in summer. Rounded clusters of white or pinkish flowers add interest in late spring. Plants will reach 6 to 10 feet high and wide, although they can be cut to the ground in late winter to renew the planting. Ninebark adapts to shade and sun, and can tolerate dry sites once established.
Best in autumn
• ‘Winterthur’ smooth witherod (Viburnum nudum ‘Winterthur’): ‘Winterthur’ is an outstanding viburnum selection from Winterthur Gardens in Delaware. This shrub offers three seasons of landscape interest, beginning with the fragrant, creamy white flowers produced in flat-topped clusters in spring. Pink berries follow in summer, maturing to blue and dark purple in autumn.
The fruit are attractive to birds. Shiny green leaves provide interest throughout the season, but are nothing less than spectacular when they turn red and purple in autumn. As with many viburnums, cross-pollination (hence fruit production) is improved with multiple plantings, so avoid planting only one shrub. This rounded shrub will grow to 10 feet tall by 4 feet wide.
• ‘Brilliantissima’ red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia ‘Brilliantissima’): While its common name may not be overly appealing, the red chokeberry makes an outstanding addition to the landscape, especially when planted en-masse. Small, apple-like flowers are produced in spring, followed by persistent red fruit that last into autumn. Deep green summer leaves give way to brilliant (hence the cultivar name) red fall coloration that rivals the color of the much over-planted (and non-native) burning bush.
This shrub tends to be leggy, but is well-suited for massing as hedges or at the back of the shrub border. Plants can reach to 10 feet at maturity, and often sucker to form colonies.
• Northern bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica): Also commonly known as candleberry, bayberry’s fragrance is familiar to anyone who makes or enjoys traditional candles. The waxy bayberry fruit have been used to make aromatic candles since Colonial times.
Bayberry shrubs are tough and adaptable, growing equally well in dry, wet, salty or infertile sites. Bayberries are semi-evergreen shrubs; female plants are covered in clusters of blue-gray berries in winter. Plants will sucker to form colonies that can reach to 9 feet in height.
Bayberry should be planted more often than it is, particularly for tough sites such as along roadsides or in neglected commercial plantings.
• Winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata): Standing in the background until autumn, the deciduous winterberry holly takes center stage once its dark green leaves fall to reveal clusters of fire engine red fruit. Common winterberry is a native species with excellent cold tolerance, making it a good choice for Ohio gardens.
The shrub is tolerant of wet sites, but it can also thrive under a wide range of soil conditions. Highly alkaline soils or extremely dry sites are not suitable for this plant.
Many outstanding winterberry cultivars are available on the market, including ‘Winter Red,’ which produces a profusion of bright red berries that persist throughout winter. Winter Gold’ is a sport (or genetic mutation) of ‘Winter Red,’ which boasts yellow-orange fruit.
Hybrids, resulting from crosses between common winterberry and Japanese winterberry (Ilex verticillata x Ilex serrata) are also widely available to the gardening public. The hybrids are faster-growing than the species and have a similar display of showy fruit; however, the fruit of the hybrids sometimes becomes discolored as winter progresses. One of the most popular hybrid cultivars is ‘Sparkleberry,’ which can reach 15 feet at maturity.
Like other hollies, winterberries are dioecious, meaning there are male and female plants. One male plant is sufficient to provide pollen for several female plants. The male cultivar ‘Southern Gentleman’ serves as pollinator to ‘Winter Gold,’ ‘Winter Red,’ and ‘Sparkleberry.’
This is only a partial list of garden-worthy native shrubs. Omissions include the native rhododendrons, hydrangeas, sumacs and elderberries. And the list is sure to grow over time, as lesser-known natives are bred and selected for North American gardens.
Denise Ellsworth directs the honeybee and native pollinator education program for the Ohio State University. If you have questions about caring for your garden, contact her at 330-263-3700 or click on the Contact Denise link on her blog at www.osugarden.com.