As a 50-something gardener, I have happily clocked in thousands of hours on my knees – digging, dividing, snipping and cajoling all varieties of flowering perennials. I have ignored very few fragrant Iris or heavenly-blue Delphinium at garden centers and plant sales over the years. Lately, however, my eyes have been wandering over to the woody-stemmed plants.
In garden design, shrubs are always important elements that create a visual link between the smaller perennials and larger trees. They can lend a feeling of permanence and stability to gardens and the larger landscape. Yellow Forsythia provides shelter for the nests of tiny birds, winterberry (Ilex verticillata) offers scarlet berries for holiday decorations and bushy lilacs (Syringa spp.) remain the definition of spring. Yet, the impetus behind my new shrub “fascination” is … my knees hurt, I must confess.
With that in mind, I have been chatting with other gardeners, checking out garden nurseries and snooping in backyards. I edited these suggestions down to 10 offbeat shrubs that might prove interesting to all gardeners. So, avoid the pain. Take two shrubs instead of two aspirin, and employ an energetic teen to dig the hole.
1. ‘Garden Glow’ Dogwood
(Cornus hessei ‘Garden Glow’)
Brilliant lime green foliage glows among the darker greens of summer. Mark Maradik, from Pasquesi Home and Gardens in Lake Bluff, recommends the dogwood shrub, ‘Garden Glow’. “It will be the bright spot in a partially shaded garden with its yellow-green foliage.” White flowers appear in early spring, followed later by berries and burgundy-red leaves in autumn. Bright red stems remain for winter display. It is perfect for smaller spaces at a compact size of 2-3 feet tall and wide. ‘Garden Glow’ is disease and insect resistant and cold hardy from Zones 2 to 7.
2. Ural False Spirea
(Sorbaria sorbifolia ‘Sem’)
‘Sem’ is one tough cookie. After our last winter, gardeners should be very interested in a hardy shrub such as this. Its parents came from tough Russian stock that originated in the harsh climate of the Ural Mountains in Siberia. Little ‘Sem’ is a combination of two larger Sorbaria selections, but don’t be fooled by its visual delicacy. In spring, fern-like leaves emerge in shades of pinkish red. Later in summer, the foliage changes to a chartreuse green with a brush of bronze red on the leaf tips. After that, all leaves turn darker green and become the background for creamy white plumes. “The plant looks like a mix of spirea, astilbe and mountain ash,” states Jill Bondi, marketing manager at Midwest Groundcovers in St. Charles. “Its orange-red fall color is exquisite!” ‘Sem’ matures into a compact and rounded habit 3-4 feet tall and wide. It thrives in partial shade and needs a fertile soil with good drainage. This adaptable plant attracts butterflies while being deer-resistant. It suckers lightly, so keep an eye on it. Don’t be afraid to hack it back in spring. Plant in
Zones 2 to 7.
3. ‘Viking’ Black Chokeberry
(Aronia melanocarpa ‘Viking’)
This chokeberry is a welcome addition to any North American native garden. ‘Viking’ is tidier than most chokeberries at 3-5 feet tall and 5-6 feet wide. Clusters of clean white flowers appear in spring followed by abundant purple-black fruit the size of blueberries. Green summer leaves change to vibrant glossy red, orange and yellow in fall – comparable to serviceberry foliage. Aronia is a very low-maintenance shrub because of its drought tolerance, deer and pest resistance and adaptability to clay soil. It also thrives in full sun to part shade. Sales associate Buddy Lynsgo from Chalet Nursery in Wilmette added, “The ‘Viking’ is self-fertile, so you only need to plant one for a full crop of berries. The fruit starts ripening from late June to mid-August and the red to black berries will persist on the plant into the fall until the birds have eaten them all. The berries are super sweet and edible for humans, too.” Put this one on the list for bird-lovers! Use in Zones 3 to 8.
4. ‘Northland’ Blueberry
Dreaming about a shrub that’s beautiful in your garden as well as one that packs disease-fighting antioxidants into its fruit? The ‘Northland’ blueberry bush sparkles with glossy, leathery leaves from spring to summer and glows with vivid scarlet fall foliage. ‘Northland’ is smaller and tidier than most blueberry shrubs at 3-5 feet tall and 4-6 feet wide. Flowers bloom in mid-May, and you can pick homegrown blueberries around mid-August. To grow the healthiest shrubs, plant them in full sun in a low-pH soil with good drainage. Tony Fulmer, chief horticulture officer at Chalet Nursery advises, “To acidify your soil, incorporate elemental sulfur at the time of planting. Add it to the surface of the soil multiple times a year. Do not add it over mulch. It helps to plant at least one other variety of blueberry shrub to cross-pollinate and promote fruit set.” Because blueberry plants are shallowly-rooted, make sure to water them deeply. ‘Northland’ is an especially good selection for our cold winters and is hardy in Zones 3 to 8.
5. Double Take Quince:
(Chaenomeles ‘Orange Storm’, ‘Pink Storm’ and ‘Scarlet Storm’)
Imagine seeing camellia-like double flowers blooming in your Midwest garden in April! This deciduous Japanese quince reinvents an old favorite. Jill Bondi with Midwest Groundcovers stresses its finer points. “… Midwest hardiness, double flowers, deer resistance, thornless stems and fruitless. The flowers also bloom inside the branches to create a unique and beautifully shaped shrub.” The Double Take Series is even drought and heat tolerant, once established. Choose from three bright, velvety colors: orange, pink and scarlet. Plant in full or part sun, but more sun brings on the most blooms. It’s 36-48 inches tall with a dense, spreading habit. Elegant, flowering branches are perfect in a vase, too. Zones 5 to 8.
6. Ironclad Viburnum
(Viburnum sieboldii ‘KLMFOUR’)
This shrub was developed by Roy Klehm in the open fields at Beaver Creek Nursery in northern Illinois. Initially, its hardiness was proven in trial gardens where it was the lone survivor of a seedling planting. In mid to late May, the Ironclad viburnum offers cymes or clusters of creamy white flowers. Summer-green, 5-inch leaves show off prominent veining and give these shrubs its rough texture. Red fruits change to black in fall as leaves change from green to burgundy. It thrives in an acidic, moist but well-drained soil in full sun to partial shade. Hardy, disease and drought resistant, viburnum shrubs provide excellent cover and food for birds and butterflies. It matures to 15 feet tall and 12 feet wide in Zones 4 to 7.
Sweet! This dwarf, mounding deciduous shrub caught my eye with its medium-green leaves and tiny violet-purple flowers. Clusters of tubular fragrant flowers bloom abundantly in late spring for four to six weeks. Afterward, occasional blooming will occur on new wood throughout the summer and fall. Its small size, 12-18 inches tall and 18-24 inches wide, is perfect for smaller spaces and hedges. This shrub is as tender as other “die-back shrubs” such as butterfly bush (Buddleia), but it is easy to care for with minimal pruning. Use it instead of boxwood for rock gardens, edging in borders or in containers. It attracts pollinators such as honeybees and has no known insect or disease problems. This little shrub seems like an interesting option for full sun to partial shade in Zones 5 to 8.
8. Golden Spirit Smoke Bush
(Cotinus coggygria ‘Ancot’ )
In spring, the chartreuse leaves of Golden Spirit sparkle like a sunny day! The chartreuse-yellow leaves turn to a golden hue in summer and finish up the year with coral, orange and red. In June and July, puffy clouds of white-pink flowers put the “smoke” in smoke bush. All smoke bush shrubs are extremely hardy plants that fill out and get bigger leaves with consistent pruning. Prune tall branches in late winter/early spring, or it will mature to 10 feet tall and 8 feet wide if you slack off. This “no worry” shrub can take the cold and drought in Zones 4 to 8. Even the Golden Spirit in my garden emerged victorious after last winter’s blast. Pair this one with the purple-leaved, varieties such as ‘Grace’ or ‘Royal Purple’ for an eye-popping contrast.
9. Pink American Beautyberry
(Callicarpa americana ‘Welch’s Pink’)
Are you a pink addict? In spring and summer, this shrub’s deep-green leaves aren’t particularly interesting, but wait until fall when the show begins with unusual pastel pink berries that cluster between the leaves on its arching branches. The pink color is important to us humans but not so much to the birds that flock to berries and take shelter in the branches of ‘Welch’s Pink’ as well as the more common purple-berried American beautyberry that attracts wildlife just as easily. Tasty berries also tempt the colorful migrating birds that fly through our area in the autumn. These shrubs look best planted in groupings of odd numbers, and there will be more berries because of increased pollination. Give the beautyberry moist, well-drained soil and a range of full sun to partial shade. Since it is a tender, Zone 6 to 9, shrub plant it in a protected spot and mulch it in late fall. In the warmer southeastern states, the American beautyberry bush matures from 4-6 feet tall, but in colder zones like ours, it will die back to the ground in winter. However, it blooms on new growth, so you won’t be cheated of flowers and berries. Even if it becomes a one-year wonder, it is certainly hard to resist.
10. Dappled Willow
(Salix integra ‘Hakuro-nashiki’)
The dappled willow is an interesting shrub with mottled green and cream leaves and shrimpy-pink new growth. When pruned into a large standard, it is an especially interesting shrub. Tyler Gurklis from Pesche’s Garden Center in Des Plaines dubbed this shrub “a cotton ball on a stick.” Willows thrive in full sun but demand a deep watering – especially in extreme heat. Keep your pruners handy if you want to maintain a smaller size, or sculpt this willow into a standard. If you don’t keep it in line, it can mature up to 6 feet tall and as wide. Look upon it as “living” sculpture as it was displayed on the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days tours at garden designer Craig Bergmann’s garden, “The Gardens at 900” in Lake Forest. Plant it in Zones 4 to 9.
Susan Randstrom Bruck is a former garden columnist and graphic designer for the Chicago Sun-Times. With a B.F.A. in Design and a certificate as a Master Gardener, she continues to enjoy the best of both worlds.