The author has worked in conservation and woodland management over many years.
Flowering Shrubs: Beautiful, Versatile, and Easy to Grow
The flowering shrubs and bushes in this article are beautiful, 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 U.S., where picking shrubs is made a little simpler by the relative uniformity of the climate. Temperature—the low temperatures likely in your area—is the biggest constraint in determining what shrubs you can choose. The second part includes a few suggestions for the more varied climates of the western U.S., where there are more constraints and more choices.
Part 1. Flowering Shrubs for the East
- Ten Best Old Favorites
- Some Old Favorites That Fell Out of Favor
- Natives to Try
- Hardiness Zones for the East
Part 2. Flowering Shrubs for the West
- Sunset Climate Zones for the West
- Flowering Shrubs for the Cold-Winter West
- A Suggestion for the Northwest Coast
- A Suggestion for Deserts
- Favorite Native Shrubs for the Central California Coast
- Some Non-Native Old Favorites for the Central California Coast
10 Best Flowering Shrubs for the Eastern US
I'm going to start with flowering shrubs that people in the eastern U.S. have found useful and easy. They and their close relatives are useful in parts of 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 U.S. (the Appalachians and the mountains of the West). The state flowers of Washington and West Virginia are native rhododendrons, and the "state wildflower" of Georgia is the native azalea—of which there are at least ten species in a variety of colors!
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.
Rhododendrons are popular because of 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.
Between the rhododendrons and azaleas, there are varieties to suit almost every region of the eastern U.S.—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 do well in wet soil or drought-prone soils and in full sun or shade.
They will flower copiously from spring to summer, and the berries are especially vivid and popular with birds.
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.
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.
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.
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 3–7. 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. Forsythia will work in 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."
Two Old Favorites That Fell Out of Favor
Fashions definitely change when it comes to favorite shrubs. At times old favorites come to be regarded as boring, invasive, or both. The book Plant This Instead, mostly for Eastern gardens, gives many ideas to replace or improve on old favorites that aren't so favorite any more.
Japanese Barberry: No Longer Recommended
There are some 450 species of Berberis. Some are deciduous shrubs and some are evergreen shrubs.
Most species are spiny, with attractive fall foliage, huge numbers of small flowers in the spring, and attractive berries which linger for a long period.
The spines make Berberis an ideal bush to keep out intruders and it is often used around vulnerable windows. As a hedge, it will deter animal intruders as well as people. It is deer-tolerant too.
But plants like Berberis whose seeds can be spread by birds often spread fast and become invasive when they enter new territories.
One Old World barberry, Berberis vulgaris, was formerly a favorite ornamental in the Eastern U.S. and became naturalized in the countryside, but it became a target of a USDA eradication program when it was found to spread a rust organism that reduced the productivity of wheat.
Now, Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii) is getting a bad reputation. This red-leaved, fast-growing species is invasive in some regions, especially the northeast; in fact, its sale has been banned in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. It spreads quickly by seed and can crowd out native species. It has been blamed for creating thickets that harbor ticks.
Some suppliers argue that specially developed dwarf and bright-colored varieties of B. thunbergii (like "Golden Nugget" with yellow-green leaves) are okay to grow because they do not produce many viable seeds. A sterile version of Berberis thunbergii was developed by the University of Connecticut and may be for sale soon in Massachusetts.
If you want to try other Asian barberries, Wintergreen barberry (Berberis julianae), from China, is one of the hardiest barberries and can tolerate both drought and hard pruning. But it, too, is potentially invasive: it has naturalized in New York State and some states in the south. Korean barberry (Berberis koreanae) is also very hardy and will grow in zones 3–7.
The American West has some native Berberis species, also spiny, also yellow-blooming, and also with sour fruit of interest to birds.
Butterfly Bush: No Longer Recommended
The Butterfly Bush (Buddleia or Buddleja, spelled both ways and pronounced bud-lay-a) is named for its ability to attract butterflies. The large scented flowers are apparently irresistible to insects as well as people.
Buddleja davidii, from China and Japan, is a robust, fast-growing shrub, tolerant of poor soil if it's well-drained, with an arching habit that grows up to 15 feet high. Varieties have different-colored flowers, from purple to white. It will grow in much of the East (zones 5–9) and west, though in colder areas it may die back to the ground.
Unfortunately, in some states Buddleja davidii is considered an invasive weed because it grows so easily.
In fact, Good Housekeeping magazine advises you not to plant butterfly bushes. Not just because they are invasive, but because butterflies need more than just color and a taste of nectar. They need other plants—generally native plants—on which to raise their caterpillars. Also, other wildlife relies on native plants, the whole native food web, to provide the food and shelter it is used to. If you plant your whole yard in butterfly bush, you won't have the abundant native caterpillars that bring the birds back year after year. Good Housekeeping advises keeping a lot of your yard in natives to keep the birds and butterflies coming.
Several other Buddleja species, however, are in fact native—to Texas. So Texas butterflies will be equipped to use them as food and shelter.
Native Flowering Shrubs for the East
Native shrubs are especially good at providing food and shelter for wildlife; since they have co-evolved with local wildlife over thousands of years, they provide exactly what's needed. They are also non-invasive and that helps to boost their popularity among eco-conscious gardeners.
Wildflower.org has a searchable database of native American plants including shrubs.
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 small, 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 hawthorn (Crataegus), elderberry (Sambucus), chokeberry (Aronia) and other native shrubs with berries and blossoms to see which species are already growing in your area.
What Is Your Hardiness Zone?
The USDA Hardiness Zone number is a number that ranges from 3–10 (in the continental US. It measures the most important difference from place to place in the plant options open to you—winter cold.
The west is so varied in climate that it's impossible to make recommendations that apply to all of it. We'll mention some flowering shrubs that work in western mountains, the northwest coast, the desert southwest, and southwestern deserts respectively, and then take a detailed look at coastal central California.
If you take a fancy to one of these plants, do look up your sunset climate zone along with your plant's zone requirements to see if your fancy will be practical.
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.
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. But the cold-tolerant shrubs listed below should work in sunset zones 2 and 3, and in some cases in zone 1 (sunset zones 1–3 aren't as cold, by the way, as hardiness zones 1–3). Ask your neighbors for suggested species and varieties, or use a plant-finding database like gardenia.net to find varieties that will grow in your zone. Garden suppliers are always developing new varieties with increased frost tolerance.
- Quince (Chaenomeles) (for zone 2–3). Blooms early with bright orange-red flowers.
- Lonicera (honeysuckle). Hardy Asian species include Lonicera fragrantissima, with small strongly scented flowers; native honeysuckles for zones 1–2 include "twinberry" (Lonicera involucrata) with black berries.
- 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 should be easy-care ornamentals if they grow in your area, and many have berries that provide color and attract wildlife. Try