The Best Flowering Shrubs and Bushes in the U.S.

Updated on October 9, 2018
Will Apse profile image

The author is a biologist who worked in conservation, aquatic biology, and woodland management over many years.

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
  • Viburnum
  • Hydrangea
  • Lilac
  • Forsythia
  • Weigela
  • Winter Jasmine
  • Camellia
  • Beauty Bush
  • Roses

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

White Rhododendrons
White Rhododendrons

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 flower of Washington and West Virgina are native rhodendrons, and the "state wildflower" of

The massive popularity of Rhododendrons is based on the toughness of the plant, the mass of flowers many varieties produce, the attractive nature of the foliage, and the capacity to grow well in shade or sun.

Azealas are very closely related plants but are shorter and more twiggy. They 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.

Rhododendron "Kirin Pink Beauty"
Rhododendron "Kirin Pink Beauty"
Rhododendron kiusianum growing in the mountains of Japan
Rhododendron kiusianum growing in the mountains of Japan

2. Viburnum

The classic Viburnum utile (Service Viburnum)
The classic Viburnum utile (Service Viburnum)

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 widespread flowers. The newer varieties and imports, like the Snowball Viburnum pictured below, have a denser growth pattern.

The Chinese Snowball Viburnum
The Chinese Snowball Viburnum
Viburnum berries are a huge decorative bonus!
Viburnum berries are a huge decorative bonus!

3. Hydrangea

Hydrangeas can add great displays to borders.
Hydrangeas can add great displays to borders.

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.

If you need a cold-tolerant hydrangea, Panicle hydrangea (H. paniculata) is a good choice. 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.

They will grow in zones 3-9, depending on the variety.

Hydrangea colors are often soft and subtle
Hydrangea colors are often soft and subtle

4. Lilac

Lilac in full flower
Lilac in full flower

This is a compact shrub well suited to warmer and temperate states. It sheds its leaves in winter but in summer, 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.

Lilac flowers in spring
Lilac flowers in spring

5. Forsythia

Forsythia
Forsythia | Source

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 5-9.

6. Weigela

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 particularly attractive when not blooming. Some varieties, though, will bloom more than once during the year.

Weigela florida is hardy in zones 4-8.

Weigela's "untidy habit"
Weigela's "untidy habit" | Source

7. Winter Jasmine

Many jasmines are vines, but Jasminum nudiflorum, from China, is a shrub with star-shaped yellow flowers in winter. Penn State says it is hardy to zone 6 (much of Pennsylvania).

Winter Jasmine
Winter Jasmine | Source

8. Camellias

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.

Camellia japonica with its glossy leaves comes in white, pink, and striped as well as red.
Camellia japonica with its glossy leaves comes in white, pink, and striped as well as red. | Source
Camellia sasanqua under a live oak
Camellia sasanqua under a live oak | Source

9. Beauty Bush

Beauty Bush (Linnea amabilis or Kolkwitzia amabilis), like weigela, is an Asian relative of honeysuckle with paired, bell-shaped flowers. It is hardy in zones 5-9.

Beauty bush (Kolkwitzia amabilis)
Beauty bush (Kolkwitzia amabilis) | Source

10. Roses

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."

"John Davis" shrub rose.
"John Davis" shrub rose. | Source

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.

Eastern serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis) in fruit
Eastern serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis) in fruit | Source

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.

USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map.  Visit the source link for a larger version.
USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map. Visit the source link for a larger version. | Source
Legend for Hardiness Zones map above
Legend for Hardiness Zones map above | Source

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 Sunset Western Garden Book divided the West into 24 zones and is still subdividing it. Look up your area in the book, or here.

Mockorange (Philadelphus lewisii), the state flower of Idaho
Mockorange (Philadelphus lewisii), the state flower of Idaho | Source

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.
  • Forsythia
  • 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.

Western serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia)
Western serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia) | Source

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.

Rhododendron macrophyllum
Rhododendron macrophyllum | Source

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.

Desert Willow
Desert Willow | Source

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.

  • Salvia
  • Fremontia
  • Carpenteria
  • Zauschneria
  • Wooly Blue Curls (Trichostema lanatum)
  • Buckwheat (Eriogonum)

Salvia

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.

Below is "Alan Chickering," a cross of two Salvias from southern California, clevelandii and leucophylla. Together they make a tough, drought-resistant, fragrant, bright blue-flowering shrub.

Salvia leucophylla x clevelandii "Alan Chickering"
Salvia leucophylla x clevelandii "Alan Chickering" | Source

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.

Salvia microphylla
Salvia microphylla | Source

Fremontia

Flannelbush, a native, provides unusually large, bright flowers.

Fremontia hybrid (Fremontodendron "Ken Taylor"
Fremontia hybrid (Fremontodendron "Ken Taylor" | Source

Carpenteria

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.

Carpenteria californica,
Carpenteria californica, | Source

Zauschneria

Zauschneria blooms in the fall, unlike most natives, and provides a mound of color.

Zauschneria californica (Epilobium canum)
Zauschneria californica (Epilobium canum) | Source

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.

Woolly blue curls, Trichostema lanatum
Woolly blue curls, Trichostema lanatum | Source

Buckwheat (Eriogonum)

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.

Eriogonum fasciculatum
Eriogonum fasciculatum | Source
Eriogonum fasciculatum, Eastern Mojave Buckwheat, wild in Joshua Tree National Park
Eriogonum fasciculatum, Eastern Mojave Buckwheat, wild in Joshua Tree National Park | Source

Questions & Answers

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      • rajan jolly profile image

        Rajan Singh Jolly 

        6 years ago from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar,INDIA.

        Will, an excellent list and description of some wonderfully beautiful plants for the garden. Lovely vibrant photos as well.

        voting up, beautiful and useful.

      • Will Apse profile imageAUTHOR

        Will Apse 

        6 years ago

        Shrubs certainly get about! Weigela was originally imported from East Asia by a German of the name 'Weigela', apparently.

        I am planning on doubling the number of plants on this page and I promise Weigela will get a well deserved mention.

      • Kate Mc Bride profile image

        Kate McBride 

        6 years ago from Donegal Ireland

        Was just thinking of weigela as I was reading this and see you had it in your comment.Flowering currant goes along with weigela for Spring flowering here in Ireland.I like the garden too but have no flowers this year-only new shrubs. It is interesting to see that the same stuff grows in US as in UK and Ireland. I enjoyed this hub-am away to read another one.

      • Will Apse profile imageAUTHOR

        Will Apse 

        6 years ago

        Weigela is a wonderful shrub. I don't know why it slipped my mind when I wrote this page- it is a favorite of my mother. If I can find a photo I will post it above.

      • putnut profile image

        putnut 

        6 years ago from Central Illinois or wherever else I am at the moment.

        Here it comes!...lol. I was going to mention that you left out weigela, but now I would feel guilty. I also enjoy lilacs, and here in Illinois they grow well, but slowly (4-6 inches a year) and flower profusely, smelling wonderful!

        Also, here in the midwest, Rhododendron actually do well with a little care, and I know where there is one almost 8 feet high! (I wish I knew how)

      • Will Apse profile imageAUTHOR

        Will Apse 

        6 years ago

        Thanks, Deborah-Diane. I am sort of bracing myself for all those people who will tell me that I missed this shrub or that shrub, so it is nice to get a get a kind word first!

      • Deborah-Diane profile image

        Deborah-Diane 

        6 years ago from Orange County, California

        Wow! These flowering shrubs and bushes are gorgeous, and I love your photos. Well done!

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