The Best Flowering Shrubs and Bushes in the U.S.
The flowering shrubs and bushes on this page are the most popular in the U.S. with good reason. They are not only beautiful; they are also versatile and easy-to-grow.
They can be used individually to add interest to any part of a garden. They can also be used in groups to provide privacy or act as windbreaks. Many varieties do well in shade under trees, bringing color and life to otherwise gloomy areas.
Most of these plants will attract bird and insect life, adding sound and movement as well as scent and color to a garden. I would have to say that a garden without shrubs is not really a garden!
The first part of this article is about shrubs for the Eastern US; the second part includes some suggestions for parts of the more varied West.
Part I. The Best Flowering Shrubs for the Eastern US
I'm going to start with flowering shrubs that people in the Eastern US have found useful and easy, though many of these groups include members useful in the West as well. Ask your neighbors, and then your local garden center and nursery, about these plants and any others you hear have done well in your area.
- Rhododendrons and Azealas
- Winter Jasmine
- Beauty Bush
The numbers in some of these entries refer to the USDA Hardiness Zone (see explanation at the end of this section).
1. Rhododendrons and Azaleas
There are so many varieties of rhododendron that multi-volume encyclopedias exist to describe them all. Many have been brought in from Asia, from the Himalayas to Japan, but many are native to the the US (the Appalachians and the mountains of the West). In fact, the state flowers of Washington and West Virgina are native rhodendrons, and the "state wildflower" of Georgia is the native azalea—of which there are at least ten species in a variety of colors!
The massive popularity of rhododendrons is based on the toughness of the plant, the masses of flowers many varieties produce, the attractive foliage, and the capacity to grow well in shade or sun.
Azealas are very closely related plants—a group of species inside the genus Rhododendron—that tend to be shorter and more twiggy. Azaleas are almost all deciduous, whereas rhododendrons are generally evergreen.
Between the rhododendrons and azaleas, there are varieties to suit almost every region of the eastern US—even the Midwest if you pick a cold-tolerant variety—plus the Pacific Northwest and much of California.
Plenty of landscape designers will tell you that viburnum is their favorite shrub.
There are so many species that it is always possible to find one to suit a particular need. There are varieties which will do well in wet soil or drought prone soils and in full sun or in shade.
They will flower copiously from spring to summer, and the berries are especially vivid and popular with bird life.
Classic viburnums tend to be rangy with loose flower clusters. The newer varieties and imports, like the Snowball Viburnum pictured below, have a denser growth pattern.
Viburnum berries are a decorative bonus in the fall. They don't seem to reseed and invade the landscape as much as some Asian berry bushes do. Linden viburnum (Viburnum dilatatum), recommended in Troy B. Marden's book Plant This Instead, comes in a number of varieties of different colors and sizes: Catskill, Xanthocarpum, Iroquois, Mt. Airy, Catskill, and Oneida.
Hydrangea bushes have come back into fashion recently. The newer varieties have more reliable flower color and are more tolerant of different soils.
It is still worth checking if your soil is acid or alkaline before choosing a particular variety. Sometimes, a little lime will need to be added to soil to get the best results.
Hydrangea macrophylla (bigleaf or French Hydrangea) is the single most popular species. A recent, highly successful variety is Limelight, which has exceptionally large and numerous white flowers.
Mophead and Lacecap Hydrangeas are more traditional forms with beautiful blue or pink flowers.
Hydrangeas will grow in zones 3-9, depending on the variety. If you need a cold-tolerant hydrangea, H. paniculata (panicle hydrangea) and H. arborescens are good choices for Zone 3. Some hydrangeas will need partial shade in very sunny states, including Southern California. Many hydrangeas will work in the moister areas of the Pacific Northwest and California.
Lilac is a compact shrub well suited to a temperate climate. It sheds its leaves in winter, but in summer it flowers for long periods. The wonderful scent and large flowers of the common lilac make it a popular specimen bush. Some larger varieties are classified as trees.
Most varieties of lilac grow well in zones 3 to 7. They need winter cold, so won't be an option in the Deep South or much of California or the Southwest.
Forsythia is a marvel after a miserable winter. It will cheer people up wherever you plant it. In very early spring, before the leaves appear, at a time that depends on the local definition of spring, it turns into a shower of yellow. It prefers sun and tolerates dry soil. Zones 4-9. Some get very large, so look for shorter varieties if space is limited.
A honeysuckle relative from China, Weigela with its pairs of trumpet-shaped flowers comes in shades of pink, red, and white. Some varieties are very cold-tolerant and will do well in the mountains of the western states. The bush is informal and shaggy-looking and not spectacular when not blooming. Some varieties, however, will bloom more than once during the year.
Weigela florida is hardy in zones 4-8.
7. Winter Jasmine
Camellia japonica (hardy zones 6-10) and Camellia sasanqua (hardy zones 7-9) are evergreen shrubs with showy flowers in the off-season: late winter to spring for japonica, fall for sasanqua. Being forest-floor plants, they prefer acid, well-drained soil, with plenty of organic matter, sheltered from extreme sun or wind. In the West, camellias grow best in places where shady forests once stood, or at least where they can be simulated by shady yards; not in mountains or deserts.
9. Beauty Bush
Some roses are genuine woody shrubs. Every continental US state seems to have one or more species of wild roses (Rosa), so you wherever you are you can probably find a native or non-native rose that will be an easy-care shrub for you, especially if you are okay with small flowers and abundant "hips" or fruits in the fall for animals and birds. Look for plants called "shrub roses" or "heirloom roses."
Native Flowering Shrubs for the East
Native shrubs are especially good at providing food and shelter for wildlife. They are also never invasive and that helps to boost their popularity among eco-conscious gardeners.
Here is a searchable database of native American plants including shrubs: http://www.wildflower.org/plants/.
Here are some examples for the East that have both flowers and decorative fruit:
- Serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis in the East, which prefers wet soils, or Amelanchier alnifolia in the West). The eastern species grows as far north as Newfoundland and Southern Ontario. The white flowers are smallish but pretty, and the blue-black berries are eaten by humans, birds, and animals alike. If you want to plant an edible, cold-hardy native, investigate this.
- Holly (Ilex) including winterberry, yaupon, and American holly. The flowers are not large, but the red berries hang on the plant far into the winter and feed the birds when other sources of food are gone. Some can tolerate shade. Pick the native that belongs in your zone: winterberry in the northeast, American holly in the southeast, and yaupon in sandy and coastal areas in the deep South. Yaupon, like its South American relative yerba maté, contains caffeine and makes stimulating tea.
- Dogwood (Cornus). Cornus stolonifera (Cornus sericea) is very hardy, tolerates damp sites, and has white flowers and white fruit, with attractive red stems.
- Try looking up species of hawthorn (Crataegus), elderberry (Sambucus), chokeberry (Aronia) and other shrubs with berries and blossoms that may be native in your area.
What Is Your Hardiness Zone?
The USDA Hardiness Zone number is a number that ranges from 3 to 10 (in the continental US. It measures the most important difference from place to place in the plant options open to you: winter cold.
Part II: Flowering Shrubs for the West
First I'll mention some flowering shrubs that work in Western mountains and southwestern deserts respectively, and then move to central coastal California. If you take a fancy to one of these plants, do look up your Sunset climate zone and also your plant's zone requirements to see if your fancy can be indulged at all.
What Is Your Sunset Climate Zone?
Western climates are much more varied than Eastern ones. Marine influence, summer heat, and winter and summer rainfall contribute as much to choosing a plant as frost hardiness. A plant that is useful in San Diego may fry or freeze or both in Sacramento.
The classic divided the West into 24 zones and is still subdividing it. Look up your area in the book, or Sunset Western Garden Bookhere.
1. Shrubs for the Cold-Winter West
In the mountains and cold deserts of the west (Sunset Zones 1-3), low temperatures, as in the East, often are the major restriction on what you can grow. The cold-tolerant shrubs should work in Zones 2 and 3, and in some cases in Zone 1 (Sunset Zones 1-3 aren't nearly as cold, by the way as Hardiness Zones 1-3). Look up your area for suggested species and varieties, for example on Gardenia.net. Garden suppliers are always developing new varieties with increased frost tolerance.
- Hydrangea. Just as in the East, many are cold-tolerant. Use a plant finding database like gardenia.net to find varieties that will grow in your zone.
- Viburnum (ditto)
- Weigela (ditto)
- Quince (Chaenomeles) (for zone 2-3). Blooms early, cold-tolerant.
- Lonicera (honeysuckle). Hardy Asian species include Lonicera fragrantissima, with small strongly scented flowers; natives for zones 1-2 include "twinberry" (Lonicera involucrata) with black berries.
- A native: Mockorange (Philadelphus lewisii). Native to the northwest, fragrant and pretty, suitable for zones 1-3 and others.
- Natives like Spirea, Cornus, Amelanchier, Rubus, and Berberis. These wild shrubs might make easy-care ornamentals if they grow in your area, and many have berries that provide color and attract wildlife. Try looking up these genus names on the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center's plant finder or (in California) on Calscape.
2. A Lovely Native Shrub for the Pacific Coast
California rose-bay or California rhododendron looks like an expensive showpiece shrub, but it grows utterly wild from coastal northern CA to southern British Columbia (in Sunset zones 15-17 and 5). It's the state flower of Washington. Other rhododendrons of all colors, native or not, enjoy the cool humid climate of this coastal strip.
3. A Special Flowering Shrub for Deserts: Desert-Willow
Although not desert experts, but we have to mention one easy-to-grow shrub for Southwestern deserts and the semidesert parts of Southern California: Desert-Willow (Chilopsis linearis). It has stringy, drooping leaves like a willow, plus two-inch crimped pink-and-white flowers that look much like those of this plant's eastern relative, the catalpa tree. It's always suprising to see this shaggy little tree shedding flowers in parking lots and median strips in Southwestern cities. Sunset zones 10-13 and 18-21.
4. Favorite Flowering Shrubs for Central and Northern California
We're picking one area of the West, the Bay Area (Sunset Zone 16) just as an example of the variety available among native and non-native shrubs for the milder parts of the West. Sunset calls Zone 16 "Central and Northern California Coast Thermal Belts"; it has dry, coolish summers, little frost, and moderate winter rain. Plants from all over the world contribute variety in flower forms and branch structures is endless.
Many of the eastern favorites will grow here (not lilac or forsythia though, because of the lack of winter chill). Camellias and rhodendrons do well here; they just need well-drained soil with plenty of organic matter, sheltered from extreme sun or wind. Shrubby and climbing roses bloom for a few months or into the fall.
In addition, we can grow some non-native shrubs rare in the East that are very easy to grow. You can see them taking care of themselves in institutional landscaping and minimally cared-for yards. Easy non-natives include Bottle Brush (Callistemon), Rosemary, and Lantana. I could have included Oleander, which is even easier to grow, but it's stinky, poisonous, and seems to grow to huge size and collect dust.
Here are some native (or semi-native) flowering shrubs we can grow, that I would want to try if I had the space right now.
- Wooly Blue Curls (Trichostema lanatum)
- Buckwheat (Eriogonum)
Shrubs in the genus Salvia are the backbone of the brushland ecosystem of coastal southern California: "coastal sage scrub." Just because you have a Salvia, though, doesn't mean you have a native. In northern California, we grow shrubby Salvias native to southern California, Texas, and Mexico. Some are fragrant, all are more or less drought-tolerant.
The dozens of cultivars of Mexican sages and their hybrids are useful because they bloom into the fall, unlike most California natives. Salvia macrophylla (below) is a softer, fluffier-looking shrub than the thick-leaved California sages, while still drought-resistant.
Flannelbush, a native, provides unusually large, bright flowers.
Native to a very small area of the Sierra Foothills, this lovely shrub deserves to be better known. The Sunset Garden Book says it will grow in Sunset Zones 5-9 and 14-24. Calscape says it's a bit "floppy" and would benefit from being planted in groups.
Zauschneria blooms in the fall, unlike most natives, and provides a mound of color.
Wooly Blue Curls (Trichostema lanatum)
Sunset Garden book calls this plant "temperamental," saying it needs "perfect drainage." "Standing water will kill it, as will heavy summer rains." But on a dry, neglected slope, it should take care of itself.
California deserts and foothills are home to a great variety of these tinkertoy-like shrubs. Eriogonum fasciculatum has white balls of flowers that turn red in late summer.