Landscaping with Woody Herbs

By Joyce Driemeyer

Spicebush - Lindera benzoinAn integral part of landscape design is incorporation of shrubs and trees. Now is a good time to think of how to include woodies on your property. The single most important attribute for consideration is multiseasonal appeal or they do not merit consideration. For example, lilacs have never appealed to me, because except for brief springtime bloom, the plant structure and foliage has no esthetic value and what is more the foliage often mildews in our climate.

The plants I am suggesting all have year-round appeal, because of texture of foliage, ornamental flowering in spring and early summer and beautiful fall coloring. They are all native plants and totally hardy in our sometimes difficult climate. These aren’t dainty little foundation plants – all are beautiful in a shrub border or for screening or accent.

Fringetree - Chionanthus virginicus

Fringetree - Chionanthus virginicus

The fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus) can be a multi-stemmed shrub or small tree. It has always been a special favorite of mine, and many years ago I installed one off the front corner of my house in a partially shaded spot at the foot of a downspout. Because it is a member of the olive family, in late spring it comes into bloom with lovely white, fringed, intensely fragrant flowers that scent up the entire yard. The blooms are on old wood in May/June, and in September bluish drupes (fruit) are produced, which are cherished by birds. The foliage turns a lovely yellow in fall. Historically, native Americans used infusions of the bark to treat malaria and topically for wounds. It attains a height of 10-12 feet, and may grow even higher in certain sites.

The spicebush (Lindera benzoin) is another plant that likes moisture. It gets about 8-feet tall and has fragrant yellow flowers or fragrant twigs. Both flowers, twigs and foliage have been used as a spice and for flavoring tea. Both male and female plants are necessary for production of scarlet berries. Birds love this fruit, and the plant has few pests. Since bloom is on old wood, pruning should be done shortly after flowers fade. In fall, the foliage becomes yellow and can spotlight a naturalized site.

Virginia sweetspire - Itea virginica

Virginia Sweetspire - Itea virginica

Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica) gets about 5-ft. tall and has arching branches tolerant of part shade or full sun. The fragrant spike-like flowers (racemes) smell of sandalwood and appear in June/July for long bloom. It is loved by bees. Fall foliage is outstanding, ranging from orange to red and lasts into December. The plant is great for massing, likes moisture and does sucker. Prune after bloom. ‘Henry’s Garnet’ is a good cultivar.

With handsome foliage that resembles hawthorn leaves, the stiff-branched black haw (Viburnum prunifolium) makes a great 10-12-ft. statement of its own. Mid-spring bloom consists of rounded white clusters. It is tolerant of sun or light shade. Bluish black fruit loved by birds appear in September/October. The finely toothed foliage changes from bronze to deep red coloration. The bark has had many medicinal uses by native Americans and also in homeopathic medicine. One-caveat – deer love this plant!

Carolina allspice - Calycanthus floridus

Carolina allspice - Calycanthus floridus

Calycanthus floridus, Carolina allspice, as the name suggests, is a lovely shrub possessing fragrant attributes. The maroon straplike flowers in late spring smell of fruit, and the foliage is fragrant when crushed. In fall leaves turn yellow. It can be pruned in late winter, close to ground since bloom forms on new wood. Allow room, shrub grows to 5-6ft. plant close to a sitting area to enjoy its fragrance. At one time, the cinnamon-flavored bark was used for seasoning. Grow in semi shade, morning sun would be perfect.

Sassafras - Sassafras albidum

Sassafras - Sassafras albidum

One of my most favorite trees is our beautiful sassafras (Sassafras albidum). It is beautiful at all times of the year. It is quite difficult to transplant and can be moved only when quite small from a container. Actually, I have successfully transplanted volunteer saplings that were less than 1ft. tall. The trees get 30-60-ft. tall in full sun. Small yellow flowers appear in spring at the ends of twigs before foliage. The distinctive foliage with its mitten-shaped leaves is beautiful indeed, and is attractive to butterflies and moths. Bark and crushed leaves are very aromatic. The bark has been used as a source of orange dye. Young leaves in spring can be gathered and dried, then crushed in a mortar for a source of file powder used in Creole cooking. File is used as a flavor and thickening agent for sauces and liquid. It must not be allowed to boil, however, only stirred into hot liquid. At one time roots were used to make “root beer,” but since they contain safrole, a carcinogen, this practice has been discontinued. The white wood has been used for fence posts, railings and interior woodwork. I have for many years grown a sassafras partially under a pin oak where I have kept it topped and pruned like an umbrella. One is not supposed to top trees, I am well aware, but for this site, it has worked beautifully and I can enjoy it all year from my kitchen window.

Introduce some of our beautiful natives into your landscape.

Joyce Driemeyer says she’s semi-retired after more than 25 years as a professional landscape designer. She is a Master Gardener, and volunteers, lectures and conducts classes at Missouri Botanical Garden, and has actively served in both the St Louis Herb Society and The Herb Society of America.


About Mike Perry

Husband, Father, DIYer, Gardener, Runner, Tea-Drinker, Traditional Wet Shaver...
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