Tag: native plants

10 North American Native Shrubs

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.

Bottlebrush Buckeye (Aesculus parviflora)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.

American Highbush Cranberry (Viburnum trilobum)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.

Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia)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

Flame Azalea (Rhododendron calendulaceum)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

French Mulberry (Callicarpa americana)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.


Selecting Native Plants


There is a push in the gardening world to use more native plants and for good reasons – they add beauty to flowerbeds, attract wildlife and because they are tailor made for the area’s growing conditions they require little care.


Here are some tips to get you started in selecting native plants for your garden.

What are Native Plants?

Native plants are those that have evolved in a region over thousands of years, adapting to the changing environment. Having thrived in the areas’ climate, soil conditions, moisture levels and survived competition from other species, these plants are highly resistant to drought, insects, and disease, which makes them some of the easiest plants to grow in the garden. In North America, plants that were here prior to European settlement are considered native varieties.

Why Native Plants?

Consider plants native to your region as being custom made for your garden. Since they have evolved under your local conditions, they are the most likely to thrive with the least amount of care. Native plants will require less insect control and fertilizer, which means using fewer chemicals in your garden.

Native plants also provide food and shelter for wildlife, so they are a great way to attract birds, butterflies and other wildlife to your garden. By using native plants in my garden’s design, I am helping to create natural habitat, which is continually being threatened by urban expansion, large-scale farming, and the introduction of chemicals into the environment.

Selecting Plants

As with other plants, it is best to choose native plants that fit the soil, light, and moisture conditions of your site. For example, if you have full sun, average soil, and limited rainfall, choose plants best suited for those areas.

A good source for information about species of plants that are native to your area is your local cooperative extension. Many states have native plant associations as well. Another place to check is with knowledgeable staff at your local nursery. Once you know what varieties are native to your area, you may find mail order sources for seed. While some natives grow easily from seed, I find that I can get quicker results by choosing container grown plants.

Although it may be tempting to just dig plant material from roadsides or woods, this will only deplete already dwindling native colonies. In practical terms, the survival rate of wild-collected plants is much lower than those that have been purchased at a nursery.

Here is a short list of North American Native plants to consider for your garden.

Bee Balm, Monarda didyma
Blanket Flower, Gaillardia aristata
Blazing Star, Liatris aspera
Butterfly milkweed, Asclepias tuberosa
California Poppy, Eschscholtzia californica
Cardinal Flower, Lobelia cardinalis
Flame Azalea, Rhododendron calendulaceum
Jack in the Pulpit, Arisaema triphyllum
Joe Pye Weed, Eupatorium maculatum
Maidenhair Fern, Adiantum pedatum
New England Aster, Aster novae-angliae
Possumhaw, Ilex decidua
Purple Coneflower, Echinacea purpurea
Red Columbine, Aquilegia Formosa
Red Twig Dogwood, Cornus alba
Santa Fe Phlox, Phlox nana
Sedge, Carex praticola
Showy Fleabane, Erigeron speciosus
Summer Phlox, Phlox paniculata
Tickseed, Coreopsis verticillata
White Trillium, Trillium ovatum
Wild Ginger, Asarum caudatum
Woodland Phlox, Phlox divaricata
Yarrow, Achillea millifolium
Yellow Giant Hyssop, Agastache nepetoides

How to Garden Au Naturel

One of the highlights of my career was meeting Piet Oudolf at his home in Holland. I’d long been an admirer of his nature-inspired style, but this was my first chance to see his garden in person. At first the landscape appeared very natural as if the plants had sprung up on their own, but on closer inspection I saw the thought behind the design. The garden was enclosed by an undulating hedge that both carried the eye and gave the space a sense of order. Piet used principles such as repetition, contrasting textures and focal points to create a compelling vista.

P. Allen Smith and Piet Oudolf

When I met Piet in the U.S. he invited me to visit his home in Holland and I gladly took up the offer.

Piet Oudolf's Garden in Hummelo in the Netherlands

In this photo you can see a few of the clipped evergreens that gave Piet’s garden a sense of order.

Planting: A New PerspectiveHis most recent book Planting: A New Perspective (Timber Press) frequently finds its way to my desk. In it Piet tells us to consider complexity as well as coherence. Choose a diverse group of plants, but create unity with repetition. He further advises us to intermingle plants using a combination of primary plants, matrix plants and scatter plants. He describes this approach like a fruit cake; the matrix plants are the batter and the other two types are bits of fruit. For example you might plant a large sweep of an ornamental grass with repeated groupings of perennials and shrubs. This is, or course, an over simplification. If you are interested in replicating Piet’s style I highly recommend his book. It’s an easy read that puts the possibility of creating a naturalistic garden within reach.

Piet Oudolf Garden in Ireland

Notice the repetition of color and how the grasses light up in the sunlight.

Piet Oudolf Garden at Pensthorpe Nature Preserve in Norfolk

Piet’s gardens are designed with four seasons in mind. This landscape will be interesting year round.

Piet Oudolf Garden Pre-planting

This photo illustrates how Piet lays out the plants using a grid that corresponds with the planting plan.

Conversely I employ drifts of a single type of plant in the gardens I design. This is classic Gertrude Jekyll. The interlocking drifts give a layered appearance similar to Piet’s gardens, but it’s the plant choices that dictate how contained or wild the garden will look. If casual is the goal, ornamental grasses are a favorite choice and I also like to use native perennials such as achillea, rudbeckia, penstemon and liatris. And shrubs are essential. There are so many innovative shrubs these days that offer four seasons of interest.

Perennial Border at Moss Mountain Farm

This photo shows the mixed border I designed at Moss Mountain Farm. Shrubs, perennials and annuals are planted in interweaving drifts.

Raised Beds Planted in a Naturalistic Style

You can design a naturalistic garden in any size space. This garden is made up of four 4′ x 4′ raised beds.

Shrubs for Wildscaping

Little Lime™ Hydrangea paniculata
Little Lime Hydrangea
Spilled Wine® Weigela florida
Spilled Wine Weigla
‘Summer Skies’ Buddleia (Butterfly Bush)
Summer Skies Buddleia
Lemony Lace™ Sambucus racemosa (Elderberry)
Lemony Lace Sambucas
Tuff Stuff&trade Hydrangea serrata (Reblooming Mountain Hydrangea)
Tuff Stuff Hydrangea

Good to Know: Visit a Garden Designed by Piet Oudolf

Piet is brilliant at bringing the wilderness to our doorsteps. To see one of his wildscapes visit the High Line park in the middle of New York City or Lurie Garden in Chicago.

High Line Park in New York

A section of the High Line on Manhattan’s West Side.