Native Shrubs for Gardens with Wet Soil

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wet soil shrubs

Water-loving buttonbush has unique spherical flowers beloved by butterflies like this pipevine swallotail.

Is there a spot on your property where the soil does not drain well? Choosing plants that tolerate wet soil is key here, so that the plants don’t rot and the soil gains stability. Garden designer Karin Ursula Edmondson recommends these water-loving shrubs:
Native shrubs designed by nature for less than optimal site conditions are changing the way designers and home gardeners view wet, seasonally flooded or muddy locations. Observing shrubs in their native habitat, we can see that certain plants thrive under these conditions, contrary to what we may think or how we’ve been taught to deal with the damp.

Red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea, syn. C. stolonifera; USDA Zones 3–7) is native across North America, save for the Southeast. Also called red twig dogwood, this shrub has four seasons of interest. In spring, new foliage flushes out lime green, followed soon after by flat clusters of white flowers that attract pollinators. The flowers fade to berry clusters, favorites of many bird species. Fall color is golden yellow. In winter, the red stems contrast beautifully with snow or a gray and brown landscape. Shrub dogwoods prefer moist soils and they can tolerate standing water, seasonal flooding and clay soils.

At six to eight feet tall and wide, red osier dogwood is useful for larger gardens and for naturalizing or stabilizing wet areas in sun to part sun. Cultivar Arctic Fire (‘Farrow’) matures at five feet tall and wide, presenting an option for smaller gardens. Its branching is upright and architectural, perfect for areas close to walkways or other active sites, where it can act as a living statue. Manage the size of shrubby dogwoods—and encourage their best stem color—by hard pruning them to six inches from the ground every three years or so.

Winterberry (Ilex verticillata; Zones 3–9), a deciduous holly native to the eastern United States, thrives in boggy conditions, poorly drained soils and wet woods. Dark green lustrous leaves give way to bright red berry clusters in early autumn, to be gobbled up by birds fairly soon. Because of its red berries and spreading multi-stemmed vase shape, winterberry makes for great focal points in the winter garden. At least two shrubs are needed for fruiting, a male and a female. One male can fertilize about six females. Winterberries work well in groups for naturalizing or filling in wet areas. Their ultimate height is typically eight to ten feet, but under ideal conditions they can reach fifteen. Red Sprite (‘Nana’) is a compact cultivar maturing at just five feet, ideal for residential or smaller gardens.

Swamp azalea (Rhododendron viscosum; Zones 4–9) reaches 10 feet tall, but because it grows slowly it is best to invest in a larger size plant at the outset. Adaptable to full or part sun, it does require consistent moisture, so site it correctly: Swampy or flooded areas are perfect for this plant. In late June into early July, swamp azalea’s showy white blossoms scent the air. Given the right conditions, it makes a wonderful seasonal bridge following the profusion of mountain laurel blooms. Find a wet spot in a woodland garden and pair swamp azalea with hemlock, white pine, ferns, azalea and mountain laurel.

Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia; Zones 3–9) grows naturally out of swamps and can reach heights of six to eight feet. However for residential and smaller gardens, there are two popular cultivars on the market. ‘Hummingbird’ is neat and tidy at just three feet tall and wide; it produces masses of white flower spikes from July into August. ‘Ruby Spice’ is slightly taller at six feet high and four feet wide, with pink flowers. Both cultivars’ blooms are heavenly scented and they invite all sorts of pollinators, from bees to butterflies, to come visit. Summersweet prefers part shade but it can take full sun in consistently wet soil. When happy, it will spread slowly by suckers, adding a naturalistic design element to your garden.

Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica; Zones 5–9) enjoys the same cultural requirements as summersweet and it will do fine in a regular garden setting as long as the soil is relatively moist. Native from southern New Jersey down to Florida, it is winter hardy to Zone 5 . The species gets tall and rangy, so it is worth seeking out the cultivar ‘Henry’s Garnet’, which matures at four feet tall and wide. White drooping flower clusters appear in late spring; the foliage turns a nice pinky red in fall. It looks wonderful planted en masse in part shade as a groundcover alongside a walkway.

The glossy bright green leaves and round white flowers of buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis; Zones 5–9) are uncommon both in cultivated and wild landscapes. Because the shrub can withstand prolonged deep flooding it is a useful addition to gardens—and it is probably because of this attribute that hikers don’t stumble across it more often while out in the woods. Hardy to Zone 5, this shrub will have gardeners swooning at the space-age spherical blooms, an inch in diameter, with protruding pistils. What buttonbush lacks in fall color is made up for in unique flowers and adaptability to particularly wet conditions. Usually growing to six feet but occasionally taller, buttonbush requires moist soil; otherwise the plant will fail. Flowers bloom from June in southern locations to July in the Northeast.

Commonly found in moist woods and occasionally growing out of standing water, spicebush (Lindera benzoin; Zones 4–9) is an excellent garden alternative to forsythia. In addition to having the distinction of being the first native shrub to bloom yellow—earlier than forsythia, in fact—spicebush is the host plant for the spicebush swallowtail butterfly (Papilio troilus). Female plants produce red berries beloved by birds. All of this abundance is followed by bright yellow fall foliage. Adaptable to a point, spicebush depends on consistently moist soil; it will fail in dry conditions. In order to enjoy both blooms and berries, use male and female plants. Site spicebush in a location easily viewed from the home so that its early flowers can lift your spirit after a long gray winter. Deer find spicebush foliage unpalatable. The mature height is an open-branched six to eight feet.

Karin Ursula Edmondson, a landscape designer based in the Catskills of New York, strives to partner with nature when crafting gardens. Learn more about her approach at kulandscapes.com.

Image credit: epantha/iStock/Getty Images

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