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Shrubs for Summer
by Bill Johnson - posted 08/02/18

‘White Moth’ maintains its white flowers throughout the growing season. • Ilex verticillata ‘Winter Gold’ has a unique color variation of orange berries and is one of the taller cultivars, reaching 8 feet tall. • Emerging Spring leaves of ‘Center Glow’ show the warm reddish-yellow colors that will last throughout the year.

When it comes to shrubs for the home garden, there are quite a few varieties to choose from. I recommend that before purchasing a shrub or two, a basic question should be asked – do you have room for something that can grow anywhere from 5 to 15 feet tall? Some gardeners have lots of room and some might not, so it’s a point I believe that needs to be considered. However, if you do have the room, one good thing about shrubs is once they’re established, they require very little maintenance.

There are five shrubs that I really like that can be grown successfully in Zones 3-6:

• Smokebush (Cotinus coggygria)

• Panicle hydrangea (H. paniculata)

• Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)

• Ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius)

• Viburnum (V. cassinoides), (V. dentatum), (V. rafinesquianum), and (V. sieboldii)

‘Velvet Cloak’ is a striking cultivar with deep red leaves and burgundy plumes. • Cotinus ‘Grace’ has large oval leaves that make this cultivar stand out. • Golden Spirit is one of my favorite varieties, very unique with yellow leaves and white plumes.

Smokebush cultivars are large, deciduous shrubs that are best used toward the back of the garden, as they reach 10-15 feet tall. Their showiness comes not from the flowers, which are actually quite small, but from the large airy flower plumes that appear in late spring and last throughout the summer, changing from pink to pinkish purple. From a distance they give the plant a “smoky” look, thus the common name. Complementing the plumes are the very striking leaves. In some cultivars they are dark red to purple, which will last throughout the growing season. For the ones that begin with green leaves, that color will change to scarlet to gold in the fall adding a lot of color to the landscape.

A few cultivars I recommend are:

• Golden Spirit (‘Ancot’) – bright yellow leaves, 8-15 feet, Zones 4-9

• ‘Velvet Cloak’ – purplish red leaves, large dark red plumes, 10-15 feet, Zones 5-9

• ‘Royal Purple’ – large maroon leaves, 8-15 feet, Zones 4-9

• ‘Grace’ – large oval magenta purple leaves, 8-15 feet, Zones 5-9

Clockwise: Ilex verticillata ‘Afterglow’ is one of the taller winterberry cultivars, up to 6 feet. • Ilex verticillata ‘Winter Red’ is a very popular cultivar • Ilex verticillata ‘Red Sprite’ creates a copious amount of red berries that will satisfy birds as well as brighten a landscape summer through winter.

Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) is a deciduous holly native to North America. It’s best known for its profusion of berries, which are a great food source for birds and can last on the branches throughout the winter into spring, thus the common name. In areas where there is winter snow cover, the brightly colored berries are quite striking against the white snow. This species is dioecious, meaning there are separate male and female plants. The berries only form on female plants, which requires a male pollinator nearby. When purchasing these, make sure you are selecting the appropriate cultivars for your situation.

A few female cultivars I recommend are:

• ‘Afterglow’ – red berries, up to 6 feet tall, Zones 4-8

• Red Sprite (‘Nana’) – red berries, 3-4 feet tall, Zones 3-8‘

• Winter Red’ – bright red berries, 3-5 feet, Zones 3-9

• ‘Winter Gold’ – yellow/orange berries, 5-8 feet, Zones 3-9

The cultivars ‘Jim Dandy’ or Mr. Poppins (‘FARROWMRP’) are needed nearby to pollinate ‘Afterglow’, ‘Winter Red’, and Red Sprite. ‘Southern Gentleman’ is required for ‘Winter Gold’.

Clockwise: The striking yellow leaves of ‘Dart’s Gold’ provide the perfect background for the white flower clusters. • The leaves of Coppertina turn a darker copper as they age. • Little Devil is a dwarf variety, reaching only 4 feet tall. Its pinkish white flower clusters attract many pollinators.

One of my favorite seasons is fall because of all the amazing leaf colors. If you’re looking for incredible, year-round color, look no further than ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius). Ninebark is a deciduous shrub, 5-10 feet in height and similar spread, with foliage similar to that of maples (Acer spp.). The leaf colors range from burgundy to yellowish gold to cinnamon throughout the year. In late spring, clusters of white flowers will emerge, attracting pollinators.

A few cultivars I highly recommend include:

• ‘Center Glow’ – red/golden yellow foliage, up to 8 feet, Zones 2-8

• Coppertina (‘Mindia’) – coppery orange with pink flowers, up to 8 feet, Zones 3-7

• Diabolo (‘Monlo’) – dark brown to burgundy foliage, up to 6 feet, Zones 3-7

• ‘Dart’s Gold’ – golden yellow/lime green foliage, up to 6 feet, Zones 3-7

• Little Devil (‘Donna May’) – dwarf cultivar, burgundy foliage, 3-4 feet, Zones 3-7

Clockwise: American cranberry bush cultivars, such as ‘Wentworth’ have the largest berries. These are must-haves for birders. • The berry clusters of Ironclad age from red to black. • Downy arrowwood has some of the larger berries, ranging from deep blue to black. • Viburnum cassinoides has berries that turn from pink to blue, creating an amazing visual for the garden. • Viburnum dentatum ‘Red Regal’ • Viburnum dentatum ‘Christom’ Blue Muffin • Viburnum dentatum ‘Ralph Senior’

If you’re a serious birder, I recommend several species and cultivars of Viburnum. The berries are a great source of food for many bird species, especially late in the year after other food sources are gone.

Some to consider include:

• Witherod viburnum (V. cassinoides) – pink, blue, red, and black berries, 5-12 feet, Zones 3-8

• Arrowwood viburnum (V. dentatum)

• Blue Muffin (‘Christom’) – 5-10 feet, Zones 3-8

• ‘Perle Bleu’ – heavy blue fruit display, 5-10 feet, Zones 3-8

• ‘Ralph Senior’ – blue to black fruit – 5-10 feet, Zones 4-8

• Red Regal (‘KLMseven’) – 5-10 feet, Zones 3-8

• Downy arrowwood (V. rafinesquianum), Zones 3-8

• Siebold viburnum (V. sieboldii)

• Ironclad (‘KLMfour’) – large 5-inch veined leaves with reddish black fruits, 10-15 feet, Zones 4-8

• American cranberry bush (V. trilobum) – ‘Wentworth’ – scarlet red fruit clusters, 5-10 feet, Zones 3-8

Pinky Winky is a recent introduction with upright flower clusters that turn deep pink as they age. • The flowers of Vanilla Strawberry transform from white to pink to red. • ‘Limelight’ has upright flower clusters that begin greenish white, turning pink in the fall.

Panicle hydrangea (H. paniculata) is becoming more popular as more new and amazing cultivars are introduced. It’s a rapidly growing, upright deciduous shrub that can reach 4-8 feet tall. Several have pure white flower clusters, but many of the newer cultivars sport blooms that emerge white but as they age, they take on shades of pink and red.

A few of my favorites:

• Great Star (‘Le Vasterival’) –  4-8 feet with fragrant flowers, Zones 3-9

• ‘Limelight’ – 4-8 feet with chartreuse to pink flowers, Zones 3-9

• Pink Diamond (‘Interhydia’) – 4-8 feet with white to pink flowers, Zones 3-8

• Pinky Winky (‘DVP Pinky’) – 4-8 feet with white to pink flowers, Zones 3-9

• Vanilla Strawberry (‘Renhy’) – 4-8 feet, flowers changing from white to pink to red, Zones 3-8

• ‘White Moth’ – 4-8 feet, flowers white throughout the season, Zones 3-8

If you have the space, adding some of these shrubs will definitely enhance the look of your garden.


A version of this article appeared in a July/August 2018 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Bill Johnson.


Bill Johnson, a director of Garden Writers Association, is an award-winning photographer and author. Learn more at: