By Cindy Gilberg
Shrubs are an integral part of the overall picture when it comes to creating structure in good garden design. They serve to visually fill the ‘middle ground’ and help to unify the larger structural elements such as the house, patio and trees. Soften the effect of walls or fences with plantings of shrubs. Numerous native shrubs have qualities that include them among the finest of landscape choices.
An excellent performer for woodland gardens is Hydrangea arborescens. Large, flat clusters of white flowers lighten up the shade in June and last for much of the summer. It grows 3′ – 4′ and is tolerant of average soil. This hydrangea works well when planted in masses and is useful for naturalizing. Pruning, while not necessary, can be done in late winter to remove old flower stems and improve the overall appearance. Because of its large leaves, hydrangea is perfect for planting with fine-to-medium-textured plants such as ferns, sedges (Carex sp.), Indian pink (Spigelia marilandica) and black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa).
Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) earns its name every September when its long branches are laden with clusters of brilliant fuschia berries. By December the berries are almost gone, having provided a feast for many songbirds. This exceptional, 4′ native shrub does quite well in full sun to light shade with an organic-rich soil and average moisture. Light blue flowers of aromatic aster are a pleasant complement to the colorful berries. A mass of prairie dropseed (Sporobolis heterolepis) in the foreground provides delightful contrast in foliar texture.
I never cease to be amazed by the sheer numbers of butterflies and other insects that visit buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) each year. In July, hundreds of round, creamy white flowers dangle from this 5′ – 7′ shrub. Tolerant of drier soils but happiest in moist areas, buttonbush is at the top of the list for rain gardens, at the edge of ponds and for use in low, wet landscapes. It performs best in full to part sun and can be used as a mass planting or singly as a specimen plant. Other wetland species such as copper iris (Iris fulva), orange coneflower (Rudbeckia fulgida) and swamp milkweed (Ascelpias incarnata) are wonderful companion plants to include in conjunction with buttonbush.
Another outstanding choice not only for moist soils but for attracting butterflies is spicebush (Lindera benzoin), a 2005 Plants of Merit. In early spring, its fragrant chartreuse flowers can be seen through the leafless woodlands. The aromatic leaves, appearing after the flowers, are the larval food for the spicebush swallowtail butterfly. While spicebush is best suited for open woodlands (light or dappled shade) and moist soil, it tolerates full sun as long as the soil is moist. It will tolerate drier soil when planted in light shade. Growing 6′ – 12′, spicebush produces red berries (on female plants) that attract many birds.
On warm days in March, a most remarkable spicy scent tempts walkers in the Whitmire Wildflower Garden to discover its source. Down the path and around the corner they realize it comes from a large rounded shrub covered with millions of small, fragrant yellow flowers. It is clove currant (Ribes odoratum), a 6′ – 10′, thornless shrub that has an arching habit. Clove currant is often planted as a screen or hedge because it tends to colonize. Birds come to eat its edible, black berries in mid to late summer.
Any of these shrubs can enhance your landscape with seasonal attributes such as flowers or berries while also providing food and habitat for wildlife, especially birds and butterflies. In addition, a well-adapted native shrub can often be just what you need – an excellent, low maintenance choice for your garden.
Cindy Gilberg, horticulturist and Missouri native, founded and ran the garden center at Gilberg Perennial Farms with her husband Doug for 28 years, also teaching classes and workshops on gardening and garden design. She now focuses on garden design, consulting and teaching, and also works part-time in the Whitmire Wildflower Garden at Shaw Nature Reserve, emphasizing the use of native plants in home landscaping.