Whether they are planted en masse, mixed in a border, or set out as individual specimens, shrubs are an integral part of a well-designed garden. They are indispensable as borders and backdrops, focal points or veils of privacy. Mixed in with trees, perennials and annuals, shrubs can accommodate any style with little fuss.
You don’t have to look far to find spectacular shrubs for your garden. Many North American native shrubs offer year around interest with beautiful blooms, amazing fall color, and interesting berries. And they are tailor made for attracting wildlife.
Below you will find a list of 10 North American native shrubs that I have had great luck with in the gardens that I have designed. All are highly flexible and will thrive in a variety of climates. A Southern favorite, the bottlebrush buckeye will survive as far north as Ontario, and the French mulberry is as happy in Virginia as it is Texas.
This list of shrubs is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. There are so many great plants to choose from. I encourage you to check out our local garden centers to find species that are unique to your region.
1. Sweet Pepperbush (Clethera alnifolia) – This shrub is ideal for a woodland garden. In late summer and early autumn it produces upright racemes of highly fragrant, white blooms. The fall foliage is a nice yellow. The cultivar "Hummingbird" matures at 36 inches and is suited for containers and small space gardens.
zones 3 – 9; deciduous; 8′ tall x 8′ wide; partial shade; humus-rich, acidic, moist but well-drained soil, native to eastern U.S.
2. Bottlebrush Buckeye (Aesculus parviflora) – This is a great choice to create a dark green backdrop for other plants or, where space allows, a dramatic mass planting. The form is mounding and tiered, growing wider than it is tall. The foliage is bronze when it emerges in spring, dark green in summer and yellow in autumn. The upright brush-like blooms appear in mid-summer and are marvelous when backlit by the morning sun. Give bottlebrush buckeye plenty of room to grow. Although this shrub is native to southeastern U.S. I have read success stories written by gardeners as far north as Toronto, Ontario.
zones 5 – 9; deciduous; 10′ tall x 15′ wide; full sun to partial shade; humus-rich, fertile, moist but well-drained soil, native to the southeastern U.S.
3. American Highbush Cranberry (Viburnum trilobum) – Everyone needs to grow at least one viburnum in their garden. This species has lovely maple leaf shaped foliage, white dome-like blooms in May and red berries summer through fall. The autumn foliage color is also quite attractive. If you have a small garden try "Alfredo" as it tops out at 5 to 6 feet. Gardeners in zone 8 can try growing this shrub; plant it in an area that receives afternoon shade. The only climate it seems to really resent is hot and humid.
zones 2 – 7; deciduous; 8′ – 12′ tall x 8′ – 12′ wide; full sun to partial shade; fertile, well-drained, moist soil; native to upper U.S.
4. Virginia Sweetspire (Itea virginica) – This is a versatile shrub that prefers moist soils, but is at the same time drought tolerant. It produces cascading, white racemes of lightly fragrant blooms in early to mid-summer when little else is in flower. I’ve planted an itea on the south side of my house in dappled shade, but it can be grown in full sun as well. The fall foliage is spectacular and, where winters are mild, the shrub is semi-evergreen.
zones 5 – 9; semi-evergreen to deciduous; 5′ – 10′ tall x 5′ wide; full sun to shade; moist, fertile soil; native to eastern U.S.
5. Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia) – I have a friend in Georgia who has a vast woodland garden that includes a mountain laurel grove. Clusters of pink flowers appear from late spring to mid-summer. To be there when the mountain laurels are in bloom is a signature moment. Young plants tend to be mounding in habit, but as they mature the shrubs become gangly with gnarly trunks that are interesting to look at any time of the year. There are many cultivars of mountain laurel, some better than others. A little research will yield the best selections for your area.
zones 4 – 9; evergreen; 7′ – 15′ tall x 7′ – 15′ wide; full sun to shade; acidic, cool, moist but well-drained soil; mulch in spring with pine bark or pine mulch to keep the soil cool and moist; native to eastern U.S. across to Ohio and Tennessee
6. Black Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) – This plant is much more garden friendly than its unruly cousin the red chokeberry, Aronia arbutifolia. Clusters of pale pink flowers clusters appear in early summer. Deep purple almost black berries form in late summer and persist through January. A particularly nice cultivar is ‘Autumn Magic’, which has brilliant fall color and larger, longer lasting berries. Black chokeberries are very adaptable. They can be planted in full sun or partial shade. The plant prefers moist areas but will grow in dry soils as well.
zones 3 – 8, deciduous; 6′ tall x 10′ wide, full sun to partial shade; prefers moist, well-drained soil but seems to tolerate a variety of growing conditions including sandy soils; native from Nova Scotia to Florida and west to Indiana
7. Flame Azalea (Rhododendron calendulaceum) – Deciduous azaleas are often overlooked when gardeners are selecting shrubs for their gardens, which is a shame because they have a beautiful, loose form, fragrant blooms, and are more cold hardy than their evergreen cousins. Flame azaleas bloom in a range of fiery shades from scarlet red to bright orange to yellow. The flowers appear in late spring or early summer.
zones 5 – 7; deciduous; 8′ tall x 8′ wide; light shade or full sun in cooler climates; moist, humus rich, acidic soil; native to eastern U.S. from the Pennsylvania mountains to Georgia
8. Oregon Grapeholly (Mahonia aquifolium) – This spiny, coarse plant may not be a first choice for your garden, but I suggest that you take a closer look. I love to use this shrub in shady areas to add texture. Grouped en masse and under planted with a lush groundcover such as liriope or wintercreeper, mahonia can be quite the knockout. And talk about carefree! Mahonia will pretty much fend for itself, producing delightful yellow flowers in late winter/early spring and frosty blue berries in summer.
zones 4 – 8; evergreen; 3′ tall x 5′ wide; shade; humus-rich, acidic, moist but well-drained soil; native to northwestern U.S. and British Columbia
9. Ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius) – I have not used this plant in any of my garden designs, but noticed that it will grow just about everywhere and has some outstanding qualities – the papery bark, early summer flowers and berry clusters all sound intriguing. My garden is in zone 7, so I’m right on the border of heat tolerance for this shrub but I’m going to try ‘Summer Wine’ and ‘Coppertina’, as both have fabulous foliage, blooms and berries. What more could a gardener ask for?
zones 2 – 7; deciduous; 6′ tall x 8′ wide; full sun to partial shade; humus-rich, acidic, moist but well-drained soil
10. French Mulberry (Callicarpa americana) – Also known as a beauty berry, this shrub is outstanding in the fall garden. At a time when so much of our focus is on foliage, this plant is about its fruit. The purple berries are clustered along tall straight stems making a striking statement. For anyone who is into flower arranging and likes using unique materials, this plant is a must. This shrub looks best either planted en masse or in a mixed border where it can fade to the background until fall. There are varieties that produce white berries as well, but I think the purple is the perfect complement to the yellows, oranges and reds of the season.
zones 5 – 9; deciduous; 6′ tall x 5 ‘ wide; full sun to dappled shade; fertile, well-drained soil; native from Virginia west to Texas and South to Mexico, West Indies
Where to Find Native Plants
It is sometimes difficult to obtain native plants at a local garden center, but these sources are often the best because plants grown in your area are sure to be hardy is your garden. So I encourage you to begin your search at home.
For assistance visit the Lady Bird Johnson online Native Plant Information Network. This website provides a database of nurseries that carry native plants searchable by city, state, and region.