The single biggest trend in gardening over the last couple of decades has been the growing of native plants. An interest in the environment, concerns about the spread of alien species – these things have made gardeners look again at plants from their own country to decorate their gardens. These are replacing some of the traditional plants used in gardens, which often come from around the world, introduced by home-sick Europeans or by plant collectors in previous centuries. Instead, they are choosing beautiful but often neglected plants that grow wild right here in America.
In a previous blog, Native Trees from the Four Corners of the Country, we look at some shade and flowering trees that bring native interest to any garden. This time around we will look at some shrubs that grow wild, perhaps in your state, perhaps somewhere else across the country. These plants are often better adapted to the climate and introduce natural ecology right into your garden, linking your home to the wild world around us. Many of these plants have great charm, and are easy to grow, so let’s get down to some native gardening.
Nearly everyone can recognize a hydrangea – or at least a Chinese one, usually called a mop-head hydrangea, with big, rounded heads of flowers in shades of pink, blue or white. Far fewer people realize that North America has several hydrangeas that grow wild in wooded areas around the country. From Florida to Louisiana, and up to North Carolina and Tennessee, you can find growing along streams a large shrub that is highly regarded as a garden plant in Europe, but much less so at home.
This is the Oakleaf Hydrangea, Hydrangea quercifolia, which is especially notable for its large, lobed leaves that do indeed look a little like gigantic oak leaves. Unlike mop-heads, whose leaves turn boring brown and shrivel as soon as it turns cold, the Oakleaf Hydrangea puts on a brilliant fall show, with reds, purples and bronzy tones stealing the show. In summer it produces huge broad spikes of white blooms, as much as 12 inches long, making a great show. It grows into a large shrub, between 5 and 12 feet tall, and thrives in sun or shade – ideal for any spot in your garden. If you can find it, an improved selection called ‘Alice’ was introduced by the famous plantsman Michael Dirr, and this vigorous plant is certainly worth seeking out. Another colorful variety is called ‘Ruby Slippers’, which has flowers that begin white but quickly turn deep red. It too has colorful fall foliage. Easy to grow, especially if you have a good supply of water, the Oakleaf Hydrangea is a native shrub that deserves a place in every American garden.
American Cranberry Viburnum
Not a true cranberry at all, and much easier to grow, but also laden with edible red berries in the fall, this plant, Viburnum trilobum, is a great native addition to your garden, especially if you live in cold districts. It’s hardy all the way into chilly zone 2, so no need for winter protection for this handsome bush. It grows 8 to 12 feet tall, making it perfect for background planting, or as a very attractive informal boundary to your property. In spring it is covered with flat heads of small white flowers, looking very handsome against the fresh foliage, and then by fall, clusters of brilliant red berries develop, which look even better once the leaves fall. If you leave them your local birds will love you, but experiment, as the pioneers did, with some jams or pies, and you will benefit from free food too. As a bonus, this species – found all across the colder parts of North America – is more pest resistant that the European forms of Viburnum often found in garden centers.
A very effective way to support local wildlife is to plant a Spice Bush. This plant is a specific food source for beautiful Swallowtail butterflies, so you will be helping those special insects to thrive. The price of a few chewed leaves is well worth it. Anyway, this handsome rounded shrub, called Lindera benzoin, is a perfect choice for those damp, shady parts of your garden, that are often hard to fill. It will grow in sun too, if the soil stays reasonably moist. In fall it turns glowing yellow, and in spring there are curious flowers with twisted yellow petals all along the branches. The Spice Bush doesn’t stop at being the perfect addition to any informal garden, it is useful too. As the name suggests, all parts are aromatic. Fresh leaves, or twigs in winter, make a pleasant tea. If you grow several you will get a crop of red berries (pick them as they ripen, or the birds will beat you to it) with a seed that tastes like all-spice. It’s a novel addition to spicy cakes, or as part of a barbecue rub. This bush grows wild all through the eastern states, and usually reaches 6 to 10 feet tall in gardens.
The fruits may look a little like grapes, and they do make a spicy substitute for grape jelly, so this is one more reason to grow a plant that is packed with terrific garden virtues. It has bold evergreen foliage, divided into spiny leaflets, and its glossy tone makes it stand out, even in the shady spots where it thrives, and where it is most useful as a garden plant. Called Mahonia aquifolium, and sometimes called ‘Grape Holly’, for its spiny leaves, it’s a native plant of real garden value. In spring bold sprays of yellow flowers appear, which turn into clusters of dusky-blue berries. Growing all across the northern states, this is another plant that is more admired outside the country than in it. Nothing else grows so well in shade, making a spreading mound about 3 feet tall, yet it is not so often seen in gardens. If you want to ‘go native’, this is an ideal way to start, because this tough plant will grow under adverse conditions, and even deer leave it strictly alone.
What better way to ‘button down’ this introduction to native shrubs than with the amazing Button Bush. If you think native plants are boring, then think again. The Button Bush, Cephalanthus occidentalis, grows wild along streams all the way from Florida to Nova Scotia, so it will grow in almost any garden. It does need moisture, but otherwise is totally undemanding, growing 5 to 10 feet tall over time. The big event is flowering, when all along the branches 1-inch wide balls of buds appear, opening into a floral explosion, with spiky flower-parts growing out in all directions like a sunburst. These are produced all summer long, and attract everyone, including native insects, as well as hummingbirds. So forget the plastic feeders, and plant a Button Bush instead. You will help preserve native plants and wildlife, as well as adding a real novelty plant to your garden display.