Nine Native Shrubs for Tough Garden Spaces

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There is nothing more embarrassing than leaving a potluck with your dish just as full and untouched as it was when you brought it in. For such situations, it is better to skip the experimentation and go with recipes you know will work. For my wife and me, tase include a mustard-vinaigrette spinach salad and cold tahini noodles. 

Black chokecherry blooms in the spring.

Black chokecherry blooms in the spring.

When it comes to gardening, these are often situations where I need the floral equivalent of my cold tahini noodles. Plants that can take care of themselves and that look healthy and vigorous even in challenging situations. Plants that will not embarrass me if I forget to water them or if I do not have the time or resources to prepare their soil just so. 

I've plundered my horticultural recipe box to share 9 of my favorite North American native shrubs for difficult spots—9 performers that, with a modicum of care and thought to siting, come through for me every time.

1. Black chokecherry (Aronia melanocarpa). Few plants I know of have higher ecological amplitude, meaning the ability to sustain itself in a wide variety of places. Black chokecherry can grow in dry clefts on exposed mountaintops and in dark, swampy woods, and just about everywhere in between. Fragrant white flowers appear in spring. Fruits ripen to black in autumn, just as the leaves turn burgundy and scarlet. The straight species grows 8 to 10 feet tall and half as wide; compact forms like 'Autumn Magic' and Iriquois Beauty ('Morton') stay under 5 feet. USDA Zones 3–8.

2. New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus). Native to the eastern half of North America, New Jersey tea develops nodules on its roots that host a bacterium called Frankia that can change gaseous nitrogen into ammonia that the plant can use. Thus, this shrub can grow lush and green in sandy or rocky soils that would stunt most species. Plant it in full sun and well-drained soil, and it will do the rest. Rounded clusters of small white flowers water at the stem tips in early summer. Zones 4–9.

3. Sweet fern (Comptonia peregrina). Bearing no relation and only a passing resemblance to any fern, this is an incredibly tough shrub. Its lovely, slender, toothed leaves earn it its common name. It is often the first woody plant to colonize sunny, dry, barren ground and as such it is very useful to hold a slope or cover soil around new construction. It also survives hot, dry parking-lot islands. New plants can arise from its traveling root system; these are easy to remove with a sharp spade if you wish, but the shrub's ability to spread can be used to great advantage. Zones 3–7.

4. Northern bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica). This shrub is often found on sand dunes, mountaintops, rocky slopes and other formidable spots. Leathery leaves clothe the stems from spring through fall and sometimes hold on through winter. Zones 4–7.

5. Beach plum (Prunus maritima) . This often grows alongside northern bayberry on exposed sand dunes. White blossoms coat the stems in early spring, followed by a late-summer crop of small, sour plums. Given sun and well-drained soil, this shrub or small tree will grow well in challenging situations. Zones 4–8.

6. Virginia rose (Rosa virginiana). Many native roses are exceptionally durable. The Virginia rose is a 3- to 5-foot-tall spreading shrub with pale or dark pink flowers in early summer. Deep red hips (fruits) play off the scarlet and maroon foliage color that develops in fall. This is a carefree rose for dry, sunny locations, but bear in mind it will spread from the roots. It flowers best if it is not cut back the way that garden roses often are. Zones 4–9.

7. Steeplebush (Spiraea tomentosa). In contrast to Virginia rose, this shrub can be mown in late winter if need be, or simply trimmed back with shears or pruners, a routine that will keep it at 2 feet. Left unshorn, it tops out at 4 feet. Native to wet meadows and shores east of the Mississippi, steeplebush is nevertheless surprisingly drought tolerant once established. Stem tips bear large pink flower clusters similar to astilbes in early to midsummer. The fall foliage is pleasing golden color. It prefers full sun but has flowered well for me in as little as three hours of direct light. Zones 3–8.

8. Bush honeysuckle (Diervilla lonicera). This shrub is more closely related to weigela than true honeysuckles. It can flower well with as little as an hour of sun, with small, yellow to orange blooms appearing from late spring through the summer. Butterflies and hummingbirds love them. Bush honeysuckle spreads from the roots at a rate of a foot per year in every direction, making it a low-maintenance ground cover for tough spaces, including slopes too steep to mow. Zones 3–8.

9. Dog hobble (Leucothoe fontanesiana). A distant relation of rhododendrons, this is a true evergreen shrub for the shade. Tassels of little urn-shaped blossoms decorate the stem tips in spring. Once its roots take hold, dog hobble is a drought-tolerant, trouble-free shrub for shaded places, such as beside buildings or under deciduous trees. (It will not thrive under dense evergreens.) It slowly spreads in a somewhat jumbled array of interarching stems, hence the name dog hobble. Zones 4–7.

Related recommended reading:

Read more from William Cullina in his treasured Native Trees, Shrubs & Vines, a classic reference book for those who want to incorporate more woody plants into their landscapes to the benefit of birds, butterflies and other wildlife, while creating beauty.

Learn how to choose and site shrubs, trees and perennials in a way that both reduces maintenance and increases the garden's ecological value in Garden Revolution by Larry Weaner and Thomas Christopher.

Image credit: By Jomegat - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0