Flowering shrubs, prior to their renaissance in the last two decades, fell into two categories -- hellish hedges and scraggly bench warmers. Hellish hedges needed constant maintenance and never really pleased anyone with a creative mind, unless you were neurotic enough to shape them with hedge trimmers once a week. Scraggly bench warmers were the sorts of overgrown, unkempt explosions of twigs that populated the back fences and side yards of our upbringing.
But shrubs have finally earned their place in the spotlight, I've even seen whole gardens constructed around their charming blooms! They require less maintenance than highly populated perennial beds and are more tempered in their contributions to the yearlong garden. Read on for some of my current favorites!
Sorbaria sorbifolia 'Sem'
Sorbaria sorbifolia 'Sem' is a chic plant with salon-quality bronze and red highlights that shine in early Spring as its feathery leaves unfurl. As it grows, that metallic blend gives way to neon green -- a designer color combo brought to you by ingenious plant selection. As a hedge, it's a shiner. As a focal point, it's arresting. In a large container, it's all thrills. Why this plant hasn't gained more traction to date remains a mystery to me.
Mahonia fremontii is a superb medium-sized shrub for Western landscapes with silver foliage overlaid with aquamarine and branch-engulfing clouds of golden flowers in mid-spring. This drought-tolerant shrub's fruiting display rivals its flowers for interest and attention -- pudgy, cherry-colored drupes populate its twiggy proportions well into autumn. With a little pruning, it shapes into a comely head-turner in xeric zones.
Also on the highly desirable and necessary list is bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora), a bushy buckeye native to the southeastern United States. In June and July, after most shrubs have settled into summer growth, these aptly named, multi-stemmed shrubs of towering proportions rocket into flower, laden with nectar and calling out to butterflies for miles. They thrive in a variety of soils and in bright to filtered exposures, which makes them perfect structural specimens for smaller landscapes.
Dirca palustris takes the prize for being one of the earliest shrubs to flower in the northern temperate landscape. Broadly adaptable to a variety of pH conditions, this slow-growing shrub teaches gardeners to savor the experience of watching a few-leaved seedling age into an arborescent shrub, much as a vintner savors the aging of a fine Merlot. And what does a leatherwood have on a Merlot? Yellow fall color, grandly so.
Buddleja nivea var. yunnanensis
Buddleja nivea var. yunnanensis is here to prove a plant can be compared to Eeyore and still be desirable. It's big (think Paul Bunyon big: almost twelve feet tall), gray, and droopy (in the best ways possible), with tiny purple flowers cascading in midair. Among the hardiest of butterfly bushes, these shrubs will weather through zone 6 winters with some die back. But here's the thing -- even when they've died back, the emerging new growth offers the bonus of being exceptionally fuzzy, covered in soft gray hairs that catch the morning dew exceptionally well. Irresistable foliage and structural height together make this plant a special addition to any garden's backdrop.
Buddleja alternifolia is a zone-5-hardy butterfly bush that doesn't need cutting back in spring -- it flowers on old wood, usually around mid-spring. The flowers are a decadent lavender surprise in a season that isn't used to butterfly bushes.
Viburnum plicatum 'Popcorn'
Viburnum plicatum 'Popcorn' is a prince among its kind and a fine shrub for gardens in zone 5 and above. It has a reputation for avalanches of snowy white flowers in mid-to-late spring that are just stunning.
What are your favorite flowering shrubs? Tell us in the comments!
Learn more about Kelly's favorite plants in his new book Plants with Style.