Some Native Shrubs to Consider for Your Landscape

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Calycanthus or sweetshrub is a shade-loving shrub I love.

by Henry Homeyer

CORNISH FLAT, N.H. – Many of the “cast iron” shrubs that no one can kill are now deemed invasive: barberry, burning bush, multiflora rose and bush honeysuckle. And many others, while not invasive, have been overused: lilacs, rhododendrons and spirea, for example are nice but not too exciting. Today I’d like to share some nice native shrubs that support wildlife and add beauty to your landscape. These are arranged here roughly in order of season of interest (for flowers, bark, berries)

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin): I grew up chewing on the twigs and leaves of this small native with a distinctive flavor that I like. It grows in dry shade and has yellow flowers early in the spring, and red berries in the fall. But to get berries you have both males and female plants (and they are not sexed the way winterberries are). The leaves can be used to make a spicy tea. It tolerates some drought, but prefers moist rich soil.

Common sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus): This can be a fussy plant: I have moved mine twice to find just the right amount of sun. I have it growing under a tall, sparse pear tree and right now it is loaded with wine-red blossoms, each a bit like a miniature peony. Allegedly fragrant, mine is not, so buy in bloom and sniff first if fragrance is important to you. Reference books generally say it does best in full sun with moist soil, but mine burned in the sun, even with wet soil. Native to the south, but hardy to Zone 4.

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Sweetspire grows alongside my stream and has nice fall color.

Pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia): This is a native that plants often itself, with the help of birds, in semi-shaded places. It’s structure is fabulous. It often has two-feet of stem between horizontal branches arranged in tiers. It prefers part shade, but I do have it in full sun growing out of a high rock wall. It grows 15 to 25 feet tall. Birds love the berries (drupes, actually) in August. White, subtle flowers in June. Not often sold in nurseries, but try it if you can find it. Avoid the variegated-leafed variety, it is not nearly as tough a plant and often fails to thrive

Blueberries: So many gardeners avoid blueberries because “the birds will just eat them”. Well, why not plant some for them? They have lovely white blossoms in June, nice fruit for feeding the birds and lovely red foliage in the fall. The trick to success? Test your soil, and then add sulfur or a fertilizer-containing sulfur designed for hollies and such. You need the soil pH to be between 4.5 and 5.5 to get good fruit production. And who knows? You might get a few berries yourself, even without netting. (I avoid netting as birds get tangled in it and die).

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Pagoda dogwood showing fall color and interesting branching patterns.

Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica): New to me, I just bought one at Spring Ledge Farm in New London, N.H., when I saw one in bloom. It was gorgeous, and although rated as Zone 5 plant and I’m a little colder than that some years, I had to try it. It has bottlebrush white flowers in June and red fall foliage. Best of all, for me, it does well alongside water or in wet places in full sun to part shade, and I have plenty of that. It stays three- to four-feet tall, but can spread by root. Full sun to full shade.

Smooth hydrangea (H. arborescens): Along with oak leafed hydrangea, this is a native that grows wild in the forest as an understory shrub. It is stoloniferous (it spreads by roots) and only gets to be about three feet tall, but can form large clumps. I recently read an article about these on research done that cites a named variety called “Haas Halo” that is said to be the best of all hydrangeas for pollinators. Fortunately, I had already purchased some last fall. It is, however, attractive to deer. They got eaten last fall, but came back from the roots vigorously this spring.

Rosebay rhododendron (R. maximum): This is another understory shrub, but can get quite large. I like it because it grows in shade or sun, and blooms (for me) in July. It is native to Appalachia, and large specimens dug in the wild are often sold in the nursery business. It can have either white or pink blossoms. Rhododendron State Park in Fitzwilliam, N.H., is worth a visit in July: there are 16 acres of rhododendrons and mountain laurel.

Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia): This is an August bloomer, fragrant and handsome. It blooms well in light to moderate shade, and thrives in moist soils (where full sun is tolerated). The bottlebrush flowers are upright and range from white to pink to red. Many selections are sold as named varieties.

Red-twigged dogwood (Cornus sericea): Common in the wet places in the wild and in roadside ditches. Its best attribute is the bright red bark in winter of first or second-year stems. To keep it looking bright, cut back older stems each year. It can grow new stems up to five-feet tall in one year!

Winterberry (Ilex verticillata): Common in nurseries, these bear bright red berries in winter that are great in wreaths and for hungry birds. In the wild they grow in standing water, but once established they will do fine in most gardens. Buy a male cultivar for every five or so females.

So visit your local nursery, talk to someone knowledgeable, and buy some new shrubs. Ask for native shrubs that are good for our birds and pollinators. There are plenty of others not mentioned here that are nice, too!