The Dirt: Beautiful shrubs in every season
If trees are the royalty of the plant world, shrubs are the laborers. We depend on these multistemmed, woody plants, yet they are rarely celebrated. Far from it—they’re smashed by icicles, smothered by snowdrifts, splashed with salt, eaten by deer, hit with bikes, and run over by cars. Is that any way to treat a hard-working plant?
Yet the American home landscape consists of ninety percent shrubs (except perhaps in Buffalo, a city of passionate front-yard gardeners). Given that level of importance, it’s a shame that most people use the same old selections: yews, junipers, euonymus, cotoneaster, and spiraea. A few hollies also show up, and barberries around older homes. And among those plant genera, one sees mostly predictable species and cultivars, including plenty that aren’t appropriate for the location because they just grow too big.
Fortunately, shoppers can choose from hundreds of less familiar shrubs, many with dazzling features during two, three. or four seasons. As you plan some landscape improvements, ask yourself what time of year you’d like more visual excitement, and choose a multi-season beauty from the list below. Since most shrubs are naturally understory plants—found in nature growing in dappled light next to or beneath trees—you may assume that they thrive in partial sun or partial shade, and grow in normal soil. “N” signals native. All are hardy to USDA Zone 5. If they need full sun, shade, moist or acidic soil, or a sheltered location, I’ll tell you.
Winning shrubs and their best features
Aronia arbutifolia ‘Brilliantissima’ (Red Chokeberry) N.
Winter: bright red berries; Spring: white berries, red stamens; Fall: bright red leaves. Best for naturalizing, in clusters, rather than as stand-alone specimens. A. melanocarpa var. elata has great berries, too.
Callicarpa boninieri (Beautyberry)
Winter: dramatic magenta berries; Summer: pretty silhouette with small light green leaves, modest pinkish flowers; Fall: berries open, smoky plum-colored leaves. Pink or white berrying cultivars exist.
Clethra alnifolia (Summersweet, Sweet Pepperbush) cultivars, N.
Winter: shapely seedheads (bird pleasers); Summer: sweetly perfumed, long-lasting white or pinkish bottlebrush flowers (pollinator heaven); Fall: gold leaves.
Cornus alba (Tartarian/Red-twig Dogwood) and Cornus sericea or C.stolonifera ‘Flaviramea’ (Redosier and Yellow-twig Dogwood) N.
Winter: bright red, coral, or gold branches (the more you cut, the brighter they get); Spring: lacy white flowers and spring green or soft yellow new leaves; Fall: red leaves (wine-colored or purple in ‘Flaviramea’).
Daphne x burkwoodii and other Daphnes
Winter: leaves persist (white-edged in ‘Carol Mackie’); Spring: fragrant pink flowers; Summer/Fall: red berries form. Daphnes are finicky but exquisite. Provide shade, some protection, excellent drainage, and regular moisture, and do not move, prune, or otherwise disturb them.
Deutzia gracilis cultivars
Spring: masses of pink or white starburst flowers; Summer: cascading shape; Fall: burgundy leaves. Full sun.
Enkianthus campanulatus (Red-vein enkianthus)
Winter: interesting whorled branch structure, attractive upright shape; Spring: clusters of beige-pink bell-shaped flowers; Summer: delicate leaves, red petioles; Fall: brilliant orange or scarlet leaves. Needs acid soil (like rhododendrons). Whole plant is elegant.
Itea virginica (Virginia sweetspire) ‘Henry’s Garnet’ or ‘Little Henry,’ N.
Winter: vibrant red leaves persist; Summer: dangling white sweet-smelling flowers (pollinator-pleasing); Fall: bright, variable colors. Prefers acidity.
Lespedeza thunbergii ‘Gibraltar,’ others (Bush clover)
Winter/spring: cut to ground; Summer: arching stems, delicate blue-green leaves; Late summer/Fall: entire 4-foot branches and stems covered with magenta flowers. Allow space for the arching branches.
Leucothoe fontanesiana (Leucothoe), N. (mainly in southern states)
Winter: broad-leaf evergreen leaves persist; Spring: red new growth, white flower clusters at branch tips; Summer: graceful drooping branches, dark green leaves; Fall: leaves turn burgundy. Requires acidity, shade, moist soil, some winter protection. Gorgeous plant if you can grow it.
Lindera benzoin (Spicebush), N.
Winter: red berries (requires male and female pair); Spring: yellow flowers before leaves open; Summer: open branching habit; Fall: yellow leaves. Prefers acid, moist soil. Important for spicebush swallowtail butterfly.
Sorbaria sorbifolia (Ural Falsespirea) spp. and cultivar ‘Sem’
Winter: leaves persist; in late winter/early spring the first foliage to emerge (pink-edged in ‘Sem’); Spring: fernlike leaves, green or pink, graceful; Summer: large cone-shaped white flowers (like butterfly bush) attract butterflies; Fall: sometimes reblooms. Always attractive; can sucker to form a hedge if desired.
Stephenandra incisa ‘Crispa’
Winter: delicate, zigzag branches, pretty against snow; Spring: new foliage tinted red; Summer: lacy green leaves, arching branch structure; Fall: golden yellow leaves (in some cases orange or reddish purple). Needs acid soil.
Viburnums (some native, some not)
Viburnums epitomize four-season beauty, but there are so many species and cultivars I can only generalize. Winter: many remain evergreen, gorgeous berries linger; Spring: fine flowers (from white snowballs to wide, flat white, or pink heads, some of them fragrant); Summer: attractive foliage, often leatherlike or glossy; Summer/Fall: Berries from black to pink. The viburnum leaf beetle nearly wiped out many native plantings, but many species are resistant, and some natural enemies are helping to manage the pest on vulnerable species. My favorite viburnums are V. plicatum var. tomentosum (Doublefile), V. rhytidophyllum (Leatherleaf, which prefers shade), and V. nudum ‘Winterthur.’
If you live in WNY, you are fortunate to have garden centers, nurseries, and landscapers who provide more than the same old stand-bys, as well as professionals who can use a wide variety of shrubs correctly. It’s not always the case, though, so shop around. Nurserymen and landscapers who wear the CNLP (Certified Nursery & Landscape Professional) tag are educated professionals with diverse plant knowledge and skills. Ultimately, though, they can only offer an expanded plant selection if consumers purchase them—and now you are prepared to do so. Keep the list handy, add to it as you learn more, and go trolling for multiseason plants as often as you can.
Sally Cunningham is a CNLP, garden and landscape consultant, columnist (Buffalo News) and author. She directs the National Garden Festival, and teaches about fine landscape plants at Lockwood’s Greenhouses in Hamburg. See Sally on WIVB-TV (News 4) on Sunday mornings.