In Praise of Native Shrubs

Have you ever heard the term “plant-blind”?  It’s a condition that botanists use to pity all the people who think of plants as just background decoration, and never look closely at what interesting and beautiful features plants have.

I have to confess to being “shrub-blind” for a lot of my gardening life. Other than rhododendrons and hydrangeas which bloom spectacularly, I found most shrubs boring.  Clipped foundation evergreens, weirdly pruned forsythia, the omnipresent privet hedge were all just…there.

Classes I took at Native Plant Trust set me straight.  The first was an entire class on Native Shrubs, taught by an enthusiast named “Boots”.  Boots took us out to wild properties – state parks, utility clearings and the like – and showed us how to identify and appreciate many different native shrubs in their natural habitats. We also learned about their ecological benefits – blooms for pollinators in the spring, and berries for the birds later in the summer. Very cool, and 4 years later I still remember much of what he taught.

The second class was a sponsored garden visit to an older couple in New Hampshire, who had built a multi-acre woodland garden near the top of a small mountain.  Amazingly, they cared for this landscape entirely by themselves.  Their secret to gardening in their 80’s?  Shrubs.  Lots of them, and not an herbaceous perennial in sight.  Shrubs are actually a lot easier to care for – no cutbacks or deadheading, no periodic replacements as plants die out, no kneeling to shape the plant to your liking. Aha!

Finally, the third class was a landscape design class, where the instructor had us do an exercise where we pretended our table was a blank landscape.  She situated a shoebox on the table to represent a house, then gave us different shaped objects, like Tupperware and plastic cups, and had us arrange them to define spaces in the landscape, such as a child’s play space or a kitchen garden.  The only rule was no foundation plants, we had to make garden rooms and pathways using three-dimensional shapes.  I came to value how shrubs can define an enclosure while still keeping open sightlines.

So, native shrubs come in all different shapes, sizes, and habitats, they are good for the local ecology, they are easy to manage in the landscape, and they have the power to make compelling designs.  What’s not to love?

The first native plants I put in were shrubs, and since then I have kept adding more.  Today there are over 24 different species on the property – 3 types of volunteers and 21 species within 14 genera that I have planted.  Only one type has failed – low-bush blueberry, due to rabbit damage.

(From left) Fothergilla, sweet fern, and great rosebay rhododendron form one edge of the woodland garden. Newly planted witch hazels are on the right. Other shrubs in this area are sweet pepperbush, sheep laurel, and black huckleberry.

Some of my favorite shrubs are locally native to Cape Cod and are easy to grow in our home landscapes.

Bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica). Often found growing in patches of several plants, this 5’-7’ shrub is distinctive because of its 4” wavy leaves.  The flowers are not noticeable, but the waxy bluish white fruits, used to make candles, are sought after by birds and people alike.  It prefers growing in sun or the part shade of a woodland edge, and is both salt and drought tolerant. In my yard, they have volunteered mostly at the sunny edges of the woodland area, I have never needed to give them any care, and they did perfectly well in last year’s drought.

Arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum). A tall shrub of 10’-15’, arrowwood has many arching stems and noticeably toothed leaves.  Flat-topped white flower clusters 4” wide attract pollinators, and birds seek out the blue-black fruits.  This plant grows in both upland and damp soils, full sun or part shade, and in salty and windy conditions. Also a volunteer, this was one of the first native shrubs I identified in the yard, so I feel proud of myself whenever I look at it.

Sweet pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia). A fan of moist soils, this 6’-8’ shrub has fragrant 3”-6” flowers at the ends of its twigs in mid-to-late summer.  The dried fruits stay on the twigs all winter and look like peppercorns.  It prefers part shade but will grow in full sun as long as the soil is moist.  It will colonize over time into a thicket. I am growing a smaller cultivar, the 3’ ‘Sixteen Candles’ as shown here, and ‘Ruby Spice’, a cultivar as large as the species but with pink flowers.

Beach plum (Prunus maritima). One of the toughest shrubs around, beach plums prefer sunny locations with sandy, low-nutrient soil. Mine are about 6’ high with a similar spread.  The white spring flowers are quite showy, attracting several kinds of pollinators, and the summer fruit is prized by jelly makers and critters. This was the first native shrub I planted, on the side of a sandy slope, and it has done beautifully with almost no care.

Sweet fern (Comptonia peregrinis). A low shrub of 2’-4’, this shrub resembles a fern because of its densely arranged, long, lobed leaves.  It prefers full sun in upland soil or part shade on the edge of a woodland.  This is a tough plant, both drought and salt tolerant, that will colonize over time. I have planted this is several locations, in groups of 2-3 plants, and find that the texture is more striking when it is in a larger grouping.

Chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia). A multi-stemmed shrub growing 5’-8’ tall, this shrub has masses of white flowers in spring, red fruits in late summer, and deep red foliage in the fall.  It prefers average or moist soil, although it is drought-tolerant, and prefers sun or part shade.  It may colonize over time. Here, it is planted just uphill of a red maple, but it wants more more sun so I will be transplanting it this spring.

I’ll spend some time in future posts on other shrubs that have done well, including some that are native to other parts of the eastern US but are suitable for our conditions, and I’ll show more about how I’ve used them in the landscape.

One comment

  1. Cathy, thanks for your descriptive characteristics of these native shrubs Cape Cod woodlands. It will help me in my decisions where to plant my new arrivals this spring. Last summer, I planted choke berry, bayberry, spring fern, sheep laurel, beach plum, inkberry, eastern red cedar and clethra. This spring, I went crazy and ordered dozens of native shrubs from Native Plant Trust, including viburnum possum haw, fragrant sumac, staghorn sumac, more clethra, spring fern, choke berry, witch hazel, spice bush — trying to figure out where they will all go. I failed to budget for more perennials for pollinators. We’ll see what comes up and what gets devoured by rabbits this year.


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