Close your eyes and think what shrubs you can name. I expect most people to produce a short list of spring flowering plants including forsythia, lilac and hydrangea. Some might mention common evergreens: boxwood, juniper, rhododendron or yew. Other people adopt blank expressions when shrubs are mentioned and ask, “Do you mean ‘bushes’?”
They are then surprised when I explain that shrubs are plants with woody stems, either evergreen or deciduous, that are usually multistemmed and shorter than trees. Horticulturists scorn the word “bushes,” its meaning too vague to contemplate; stash it in a drawer with archaic nouns, next to “shrubbery” – unless you’re heading for Australia to march around in “the bush.”
Frequently, even gardeners who can name 40 perennials can produce just five or 10 shrub names. Shrubs are definitely chopped liver.
Yet a landscape without shrubs is a stage set without furniture, a dinner plate with one filet of fish, a dress without a necklace. We need shrubs, and we should use them better.
Large and important
Several large shrubs can be used just like small trees around a home landscape – as focal points in an island planting, as stand-alone specimens or as the corner anchors in a large landscape bed skirting the foundation of a house. I’m avoiding the term “foundation planting,” as it conjures up those narrow beds crammed against most houses and packed with too many shrubs that don’t fit the location. A narrow, tightly packed foundation bed is not the place for these large beauties; they must be placed where they can attain their natural, graceful, full sizes.
• Viburnums: If ever a plant could stand up and whine “I get no respect,” it would be a viburnum. In their containers they just don’t show you their long-term attributes.
This is a genus of imposing shrubs, from 5 to 18 feet tall, that offer flowers, fragrance, lush berry clusters, bird appeal, textured foliage and fall colors. The most spectacular is the Doublefile Viburnum (Viburnum plicatum tomentosum) – royalty of the shrub world. The Linden Viburnum (V. dilatatum), Witherod (V. cassinoides), Burkwood and Koreanspice (V. carlesii) are just some of the species with great crosses and cultivars.
Don’t avoid them for fear of the viburnum leaf beetle, as that pest completely avoids many viburnums and appears to be waning even on native viburnums in our fields.
• Amelanchier: Native serviceberries (also called Shadbush) are my choice for the top must-have plant in every yard – for four seasons of beauty, bird value and delicious berries (if the cedar waxwings leave any). Most grow 10 to 18 feet tall, vase-shaped, sometimes grown as trees. Find a corner.
• Hydrangeas: They dominate shrub departments, gardening Q&A sessions, and could take over this article, so I will give this spectacular, showy, gorgeous group of shrubs short shrift here; just see them.
The shorter, reblooming types – ‘Endless Summer’ and countless others – are invaluable among border and foundation plants. In this collection of taller, specimen plants, the panicle hydrangeas – 6 to 9 feet tall – are easy, gorgeous and bloom dependably after midsummer. Oakleaf Hydrangea is many landscapers’ first choice for classic elegance, a staple in partial shade.
• Ninebarks: Physocarpus was a green old standard that is now used extensively. Today’s cultivars have copper-colored leaves. Notice the mature size, give it room and don’t prune it tightly.
• Lilac, Mock Orange, Forsythia, Rose of Sharon: These are grouped here just to say that every one of these traditional shrubs has improved cultivars, worth including somewhere, that perform better than old varieties. For example, newer lilacs remain 7 feet rather than 20 feet tall; some do rebloom.
Evergreens large and small
Most people want some green plants all year, so they buy yews, hollies, junipers, arborvitae, boxwoods or rhododendrons. Dwarf spruces such as ‘Baby Blue Eyes’ are often overlooked. Chamaecyparis (False Cypress) are less known and not used enough, although the genus includes richly varied textures and tones, sizes and shapes – tall and pointy, short and round – and they are generally deer-resistant and partly shade-tolerant.
Common mistakes with evergreens include overcrowded planting without regard to mature size and shape, insufficient drainage, cramming them under the eave, insufficient watering and forgetting their site requirements: Junipers need full sun; rhododendrons need partial shade and acidic soil; arborvitae are deer candy and suffer wind burn. Find an evergreen that will fit 15 years from now in its natural form and size.
Medium to small shrubs
The trick is to know exactly how much sun hits the site and how much space is available for the plant. There are definitely small shrubs for your landscape jobs that will complement perennials and define a garden space. The first six listed below do fine in partial shade as well as sunshine.
• Clethra alnifolia: Clethra is a lovely native called Summersweet because the fragrance could sell perfume; leaves are shiny; summer flowers are dangling, white; cultivar heights vary.
• Callicarpa, Beautyberry (several species): Won’t dazzle you until you see the late season berries – mostly metallic purple!
• Enkianthus: This gem is somewhat subtle but the reddish stems, dangling bellflowers and bright fall colors make it priceless.
• Rhus aromatica ‘Gro-low’ (Sumac): Strong orange-red color in fall, shiny leaves; stays 2 feet tall, up to 5 feet wide.
• Sorbaria sorbifolia ‘Sem’: This cultivar of a great, suckering hedge shrub is adorable, with pink leaf tips, early to open in spring, large butterfly-attracting white flowers, and a lacy look—just 4 feet tall.
• Itea: Varying heights by species, this good worker offers fragrant flowers and turns flame red in fall.
So many other shrubs do really well in full sun: St. John’s Wort, Bluebeard (Caryopteris), Butterfly Bush, landscape roses. Innumerable species of Weigelas and Japanese Spiraeas – some might say overused – serve well in contemporary landscapes, with a variety of foliage colors.
Shrub choices are many. Nurseries and garden centers in our region offer a broad selection, so look thoroughly and learn what low-maintenance, charming friends they can be in your landscape.
Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.