The author has worked in conservation and woodland management over many years.
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—puts the biggest constraint on 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.
What's in This Article
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
The Ten 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. 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 the US (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 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 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 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 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. 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 US 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 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.
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 looking up these genus names on the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center's plant finder (wildflower.org) or (in California) on Calscape.
2. California Rhododendron for the Northwest Coast
California rhododendron or rose-bay (Rhododendron macrophyllum), 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. Desert-Willow, for Southwest Deserts
Here is just one of many easy-to-grow shrubs 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 surprising to see dozens of these little flowers dropping to the ground in parking lots and median strips in Southwestern cities. Sunset zones 10-13 and 18-21.
4. Favorite Flowering Shrubs for the Central California Coast
We're picking one area of the West, the San Francisco Bay Area (Sunset Zone 16) just as an example to show 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." This zone has dry, coolish summers, little frost, and moderate winter rain. Plants from all over the world—from Australia, South Africa, Mexico, and the Mediterranean—contribute endless variety in flower forms and branch structures.
Many of the eastern favorites will grow here (though not lilac or forsythia, because of the lack of winter chill). Camellias and rhododendrons 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 almost all year.
And it's fun to try some genuses that barely exist in the East.
Natives and Near-Natives for the Central California Coast
Here are the native or near-native flowering shrubs 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.
Pictured above 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.
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.
California has hundreds of species and varieties of Ceanothus: fragrant, early-blooming shrubs, with tiny flowers ranging from gray to white to lavender to deep blue. Some are big enough to be considered trees, while others are rangy ground covers (as shown in the photos in this SF Chronicle article). They are drought-tolerant and need little maintenance though they have a reputation for not living long. "Julia Phelps" and "Dark Star" are dark blue varieties recommended locally.
Flannelbush or Fremontia (Fremontodendron californicum) provides unusually large, bright flowers for a native shrub. Its drawbacks are that it is covered with prickly hairs (though if you want a hedge that discourages intruders that could be a good thing) and that it can get quite large (though smaller hybrids are available, like "Ken Taylor" below).
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. It is becoming quite common in low-maintenance landscaping.
6. 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. If you are worried you will over-water it, you can always substitute the very commonly used and similar-looking Mexican Bush Sage (Salvia leucantha).
7. 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. In our area it's not exactly a native, preferring hotter, drier areas a few miles away, but it's certainly tough.
What to Think About When Planting Natives in the West
Going native in the West may require changing your expectations about maintenance. The soil and water requirements for plants from the desert, chaparral, and grassland parts of the west are different from those for plants from continental humid regions like China, Europe, and the Eastern US. Adding compost to the soil, or summer watering, may kill a native that's used to a summer-dry slope of clay or gravel.
Furthermore, everyone would love to have flowers in the fall as well as in the spring, but few natives in Zone 16, the example above, bloom in the fall; that is just not the Mediterranean pattern, though Zauschneria above is an exception. Now "native-ish" plants can be found, for example Mexican species of Salvia like Salvia microphylla in the picture above, that have come to expect summer monsoon rain, and will keep blooming in the fall if they keep getting water. That's why many compromise by planting species and varieties of native genera like Salvia and Penstemon; varieties that can deal with summer water and respond by producing flowers.
Links About California Native Gardening
Calscape lists the "very easy" plants for your area. Learn more, for example, about Zauschneria, Carpenteria, Cercis, buckwheats, Berberis (Oregon grape), and Chilopsis.
Plant Right explains why you should plant natives and gives you thumbs up and thumbs down on many species and varieties.
The California Native Plant Society gives you basics on gardening with native plants.
"Don't Plant a Pest" lists preferred plants for California and parts of surrounding states.
Favorite Non-Natives for the Central California Coast
Here are a few non-native shrubs that are extremely easy to grow: bottle brush (Callistemon), rosemary, and lantana. These are all full-sun plants that don't need much watering. You can see them taking care of themselves in institutional landscaping and neglected yards. They are colorful, with flowers whose details are interesting. I could have included oleander, which is even easier to grow, but it's stinky and poisonous, and seems to grow to huge size and collect dust.
1. Bottle Brush
Callistemon citrinus and other Callistemons (which may be renamed "Meleleuca" at some point) come from Australia. Bottlebrush tolerates heat, cold (down to freezing) and poor soils. It blooms almost all year. Old plants can get very large and woody (as you can see from old freeway plantings). Kids are fascinated by the soft red bristles which unfurl to make the "brushes."
Rosmarinus officialis grows in zones 4-24, and is a sun-loving, sturdy, no-fuss shrub that doesn't want fertilizer or any particular amount of water. The flowers hang on most of the spring and summer and attract bees. You can break small branches off and use the pine-needle-like leaves in cooking.
Hybrids of Lantana camara and Lantana montevidensis come in magenta, orange, white, and many other colors. They are small drought-resistant shrubs for full sun that will bloom basically all year, with clusters of star-shaped flowers.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Rajan Singh Jolly from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar, INDIA. on October 02, 2012:
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 (author) on August 19, 2012:
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 McBride from Donegal Ireland on August 18, 2012:
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 (author) on April 12, 2012:
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 from Central Illinois or wherever else I am at the moment. on April 11, 2012:
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 (author) on November 20, 2011:
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 from Orange County, California on November 20, 2011:
Wow! These flowering shrubs and bushes are gorgeous, and I love your photos. Well done!