Sunday, January 14, 2018

Underused Native Shrubs

Way back in 2011, I wrote a blog post about underused native trees. It was my intention at the time to follow that up with underused shrubs. Well, six years later, here it is.

Shrubs are an important part of the landscape but they seem to be viewed as filler, something to go between the trees and the flowers.  They also seemed to be viewed as something used to hide a house’s foundation, a function which isn’t needed for today’s homes. As a result, you can often see the same shrubs used over and over again, many of them shaped into evergreen blobs. There are some native shrubs being used, and that’s a good thing.

Common shrubs that I see in the mainstream trade or larger native plant nurseries include: dwarf witchalder (Fothergilla spp.), oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia), Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica), native azaleas and rhododendrons (Rhododendron spp.), summersweet (Clethra alnifolia), possumhaw (Viburnum nudum), garden blueberries (Vaccinium spp.), winterberry (Ilex verticillata and I. decidua), beautyberry (Callicarpa americana, be careful to get the native species), and St. John’s wort (Hypericum spp.). Some popular evergreens include doghobble (Leucothoe spp.), hobblebush (Agarista populifolia), Florida anise (Illicium floridanum), mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) and evergreen rhododendrons.

Chickasaw plum
I’d like to spotlight some of the native shrubs that aren’t used very much. Some of these might be familiar to you, yet still are not readily available in nurseries. I’m going to group them by landscape size and indicate in the descriptions what special talents they might have (such as sunny, shady, wet or dry).

Sometimes you want to fill up a big space but it’s not a good place for a tree. Some shrubs get quite large, they might even be considered small trees. Some of these have spreading habits – that’s how they get to be big – so research them carefully:

  • Bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora) - part to full sun shrub that blooms in the summer to the delight of Eastern tiger swallowtail butterflies.
  • Red buckeye (Aesculus pavia) - part sun shrub that blooms early in April in time for returning hummingbirds to enjoy.
  • Chokeberry (Aronia spp.) - part to full sun shrub with beautiful flowers in May and fruits that last through the winter for birds.
  • Chickasaw plum (Prunus angustifolia) - part to full sun shrub that blooms in April and has small plums. Host plant for 456 moths and butterflies.
  • Elderberry (Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis) - full sun shrub that can handle very moist soil, blooms in June and has small fruits that birds love.
  • Shrub dogwoods (Cornus amomum or C. foemina) - part to full sun shrubs that can handle moist conditions and produce fruits that birds love.
  • Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) - part to full sun shrub that is our earliest blooming shrub that can handle most conditions;  host plant for several butterflies and the birds love the fruits.
  • Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) - full sun shrub that can handle wet conditions and has spectacular flowers in the summer that bees and butterflies love. Hard fruits are eaten by wood ducks.
  • Sumac (Rhus ssp.) - full sun shrubs that bloom in the spring and summer; fruits are enjoyed by birds.
  • Witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana) - our latest shrub to bloom, often in November.
  • Osmanthus (Cartrema americana) - small scented flowers appear in late spring, leaves are evergreen.
  • Titi (Cyrilla racemiflora) - an evergreen Coastal Plain native that supports bees and can handle wet conditions.
  • Rusty lyonia (Lyonia ferruginea) - an evergreen Coastal Plain native with fragrant flowers that can handle wet or dry conditions.
  • Devil’s walking stick (Aralia spinosa) - tall and prickly, this shrub earns its name, but the flowers are adored by bees and butterflies and the birds relish the small fruits. This shrub has the largest leaves in North America.
Left: Aronia arbutifolia; Center: Aesculus pavia; Right: Lindera benzoin

Don't have room for such a big plant? Here are some smaller recommendations for smaller lots or tight spaces:
  • Huckleberry (Gaylussacia spp.) - part to full sun shrub with bell-flowers and fruit similar to blueberry.
  • Lowbush blueberry (Vaccinium pallidum) - part to full sun shrub that can handle drier conditions and which slowly spreads to form a colony.
  • Inkberry (Ilex glabra) - full sun, evergreen shrub with blue-black fruits from the Coastal Plain; need male and female plants for fruit.
  • Dahoon holly (Ilex cassine) - part to full sun, evergreen shrub from the Coastal Plain; need male and female plants for fruit.
  • Dwarf wax myrtle (Morella cerifera, dwarf forms) - part to full sun, evergreen shrub from the Coastal Plain; need male and female plants for fruit.
  • Smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens) - part sun shrub that can handle moist conditions.
  • Hearts a bustin’ (Euonymus americanus) - part sun shrub that can handle drier conditions; has fruit that birds love in the fall.
  • Sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus) - part sun shrub that can handle drier conditions; flowers can be fragrant.
  • New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus) - part to full sun shrub that can handle drier conditions; blooms in the summer.
  • Leatherwood (Dirca palustris) - part sun shrub that can handle moist conditions.
  • Honeycup (Zenobia pulverulenta) - part to full sun shrub with unusual foliage and fragrant flowers.
  • Amorpha (Amorpha fruticosa) - part to full sun shrub with gorgeous flowers; it is the host plant for several butterflies.
  • Spiraea (Spiraea spp.) - full sun shrubs that bloom in summer and attract a diverse group of insects as pollinators.
  • Staggerbush (Lyonia lucida) - an evergreen suckering Coastal Plain shrub of swamplands; good-looking with pinkish flowers and shiny leaves.
  • Alabama snow wreath (Neviusia alabamensis) - part to full shrub with suckering habit so it grows wide; rare in the wild but happy in gardens.
  • Viburnum obovatum and other Viburnums - viburnums largely do best in full sun but there are some that tolerate shade. I have blog post about them that provides more detail.
  • Dwarf Palmetto (Sabal minor) - evergreen trunkless palm with fragrant flowers.
Left: Spiraea latifolia; Center: Calycanthus floridus; Right: Amorpha fruticosa

Need something for a difficult place? I have written about shrubs for difficult places before and you can find that here. I’ve also tried to indicate in the descriptions above which plants can be used in places with shade, dry or wet soils. A comprehensive Piedmont shrub post that I did can be found here; it has links to many others inside it.

So if you have occasion to need a new shrub - or maybe you’d just like to be a little different - think about these.  You'll have something out of the ordinary, you’ll increase market demand in the nursery trade, add to biodiversity in your area, and you just might inspire one of your neighbors to think differently as well.

Where can you find these plants?  First ASK your local nursery.  Nurseries need to hear from their customers about plants that they want.  Even if they don’t have them, your question will alert them to consider ordering them in the future.  Or they may be able to order them for you right then.

Witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana)
Mail order sources may be an alternative for you if you don't live near any sources.  Always search using the scientific name to make sure you are searching for the right plant.  

For mail order companies, do check ratings and customer reviews on Garden Watchdog. If the company is not listed on Garden Watchdog - beware!  At least one disreputable company in Georgia sued to have Garden Watchdog remove their poor rating and bad customer reviews.


  1. Thank you Ellen for a great list! I struggle to find evergreen natives that can take full sun for my front garden.

  2. Timely piece, I have an area I wanted to plant. I'm 61 so I am planting trees for posterity versus timber. I'm planting long leaf pine on several acres.

  3. What a wonderful post! I had to find many of these shrubs by trail and error...when I would see one at Arabia Mountain or Panola Mountain, I would be very curious as to what bush or small tree I had seen. I will come back to this post if I am trying to identify one again!

  4. Great Post, Ellen! When is your book coming out? Not kidding!