“And now for something completely different.” It’s time to play a little bit of classic comedy movie trivia. From which movie did the following line become famous: “We want a shrubbery”? If you’re my age or have ever in your life encountered the classic Monty Python skits you would know that this line is from the hilarious bridge scene as the Knights of the Round Table attempt to correctly answer the pun posed by the Knights that say “Ni!” to gain access across the guarded bridge in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Yes, shrubbery. It’s just a fun word to interject into any conversation. But what exactly may be considered a “shrub”? In any landscape or garden there are maybe three or four layers of plant material. Working from the top down, you first find the dominant canopy. The big ones, what I call “legacy” trees –those species that will outlast your grandchildren. Next is the sub-canopy. In the Southeast this may be comprised of dogwood (Cornus spp.), redbud (Cercis spp.), serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.) and such. Below or intermingled with these are, yes, shrubs or shrubbery. Finally, completing our multi-layered landscape cake comes the ground covers, perennials, and what I call landscape details.
But back to shrubs. This component of your garden may be hugely diverse, with plants ranging from 18 inches tall to those that are as tall as any visitor. Similar to trees, the two major categories of shrubs are evergreen and deciduous. While I love the sense of stability and permanence evergreen plants play in the garden composition, I can also find these on the verge of mundane; that is unless these also flower or fruit. In my mind or at least in my garden if a plant doesn’t do double or triple duty I haven’t the real estate to offer. In other words, I like to select plants that are treasured for not just a 10-day bloom once a year but those that may also have appealing fall color, winter textural interest, and also feed me or some wildlife to boot.
Here’s a question: Do you think there would be a stampede of tourists when the Louvre opens most days making their way to the Mona Lisa if there were three of them? I doubt it. So too are those “specimen” shrubs in your garden. It’s unlikely that any of us have a mass of globe blue spruce or lace leaf Japanese maple. Some plants are really so unique that they deserve to be the only representative of that species in the garden. There are others that require a quorum in order that their vote is heard. A mass of coralberry in the fall and winter can put on a striking display. The same may be said of winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata), ‘Midwinter Fire’ dogwood (Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’), and Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica).
Now for another thing to consider, native or non? While this article possesses a somewhat unrelated title, I do feel compelled to at least address the tip of this iceberg. In full disclosure I must let it be known that I teach a university course on native plants so I do love them! In a world of homogenous architectural design, our native flora are about the only thing left to create a true sense of place. I saw a design recently proposed to “beautify” some of our interstate interchanges and nearly had a mini-stroke when I saw that the plant palette consisted of holly, blue something juniper, crapemyrtle, and daylilies. “Where is your creativity?” I wanted to scream (but held my tongue until the appropriate time). Let’s show the millions who drive by these public parcels some of our exquisite native plant communities. OK, with all of that being said, I will also confess that in my garden there exists a multitude of plant material that was not born in the USA. The absolutely number-one thing is do NOT plant any invasive non-native plant material. Don’t buy them. Don’t plant them. Period.
So, true to form and just like the classes I teach, it may appear to some that I’m rambling so let’s return to our story. What you will find below are but a few of the shrubs I would wholeheartedly endorse for anyone who desires to stray from the horticultural crowd a smidge without having to go through the hassle of searching the Eastern Seaboard. What you won’t find on this list are hollies, juniper, yew, or laurel. This is not to say those species are irrelevant but for the sake of space I’ve focused mainly on slightly less common plants.
1. Coral berry
I first discovered this plant as I began teaching my native plants course. This species has a beautiful display of fruit beginning in late fall and lasting most of the winter, at least in my garden. I either feed my feathered friends too well or they don’t find the berries all that appetizing. Using a mass of this plant can add some winter interest to an otherwise unnoticed place of your garden. With a bit of an evergreen backdrop (see, I DO find some evergreens necessary) the fruit will display even more so.
2. Virginia sweetspire
This is a multi-seasonal showpiece. Mid-spring cascading bloom in addition to some outstanding fall color (given enough sun) makes this plant a fine addition to any garden. Best used in mass and again, consider that all-important word in any design – contrast. Place as a front layer before some evergreens to bring out the best characteristics.
3. Winter daphne
I’m a sucker for fragrance. This evergreen produces some of the finest smells this side of Lilacville. It prefers a fairly rich, moist soil, and does best with a little bit of shade and good drainage. For several years I just didn’t trust winters so I had mine in a container and moved it into the house every February to disguise the stale, trapped air. I finally got brave this year and stuck it in the ground. (Actually, the blasted thing just got to be too heavy to drag in and out).
4. Paper bush
Perhaps a borderline plant for certain zones but once this puppy has an established root system it can bounce back from near 0 F. Mine is planted near the street and there isn’t another plant I own which generates more “what is that?” than this large shrub. As I mentioned earlier I’m not usually a fan of one-time performances (i.e., blooms but no berries or fall color) but the unique blooms in winter have prompted more than one passerby to ask where I got the ornaments for that plant.
Are you old enough to remember the Russian satellite Sputnik? How about those crazy ceiling lamps that look like a starburst? (The ones that are making a big comeback). That is exactly what I think of when I see the blooms of a buttonbush. Once established this shrub enjoys being cut back pretty hard now and then to rejuvenate itself. A pale yellow fall color is nice but the blooms are the attention getters.
Given the choice, I’m a cool color guy. Not a huge fan of orange unless I’m eating one or it’s mixed with pink and yellow in a glowing sunset. The lavender/blue blooms on a caryopteris fit the bill nicely, especially layered against the pale golden foliage offered on some cultivars.
7. Winterberry holly
Again, not much to these plants other than a showy red berry but what a sight on a fluffy snow kind of day. The mast production of these are not always heavy and you’d better be quick with the camera before the birds find them because they (the berries) will be devoured pronto. Look for varieties that are on the dwarf side unless you have a humongous yard as these can get in the 8-foot range. These plants are dioecious so you have to have fertilized flowers in order to have berries. One male in the vicinity will pollinate several female plants.
8. Blueberry, rabbiteye
Another multi-season masterpiece with fruit that appeals to us humans as well as the birds! There are so many options – species, cultivars, hybrids –and they come in just as many sizes, so be selective and make sure you have more than one for proper cross-pollination. Rabbiteye blueberries are native to the South and are a good choice for southern landscapes.
This shrub’s fall color can rival anything in your garden for late-season interest. If you want to have some blueberries to sprinkle over your granola at breakfast make sure you invest in some bird netting or you’re back to plain grain.
9. Sweet pepper bush
Long after the thrill of spring’s fresh new growth and dazzling flowers has faded, the bottlebrush blooms on this highly fragrant plant emerge. Sweet pepper bush (I resort to calling it clethra) has a nice medium texture with semi-glossy leaves, with the bonus of attracting pollinators. Planted near a screened porch or deck this beauty will nicely bridge the gap between spring and fall for garden interest.
The standard, grandma version – Abelia grandiflora – is delightful through the summer months. Just ask any bee. But there are cultivars such as ‘Edward Goucher’, ‘Mardi Gras’, ‘Francis Mason’, ‘Kaleidoscope’, and more. Semi-evergreen in many areas of the South this shrub makes an excellent hedge or divider when creating your outdoor rooms. Glossy leave provide a solid backdrop to the pinkish white summer blooms. Not super fragrant but I still think its underused and overlooked when plant shopping.
11. Winged sumac
Anyone who has driven along a road or interstate in the East has seen and probably sloughed off this large shrub/small tree as a “weed.” I know that’s how our DOT surely views it as they happily spray their herbicides willy-nilly every summer. This is a wonderful fall interest plant if you have the room. Winged sumac, smooth sumac (R. glabra), or the high dollar Tiger Eyes sumac (R. typhina ‘Bailtiger’) all add an amazingly colorful layer to our native landscapes. Especially when sandwiched between a mass of native broom sedge (Andropogon virginicus), and eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana). Again, this isn’t a petite plant so perhaps not owing but merely appreciating its fall display may be the best approach given the size of most gardens.
Number 12 of our fabulous dozen is hearts-a-bustin or strawberry plant. This is another of those unsung native heroes in my opinion. Not really noticed most of the year but when fall comes with its first hint of cool, this plant flashes on a unique display of fruit which contrast beautifully with its attractive green foliage and stems. This is another one you’ll want to plant in clusters. The orange berries breaking away from their spiny, red seed pods don’t last a terribly long time but sometimes it’s the anticipation of what’s about to be displayed that makes my eyes widen.
The list above is in no particular order so feel free to just throw a dart or three to make your selection(s). Naturally, before you buy or order do your homework and research the cultural requirements for each and see which are a match for your zone, soil, light requirement, and so on. So go out there and fill every garden void you spot with some off the beaten path beauties. Happy Planting!
A version of this article appeared in Tennessee Gardener Volume 16 Number 5.