By Amber Veverka
Ready to spruce up your landscaping with some new shrubs? Put down that boring ligustrum and standard-issue holly and make way for some native species that will add a little interest to your yard, help wildlife, and thrive without becoming invasive pests.
We asked Carolinas plant experts to give us their picks for five fabulous native shrubs to plant this autumn. Color, fruit, flowers and wildlife habitat: These tough native shrubs have it all.
“Every homeowner should be required to grow a blueberry bush,” said David Blackley, owner of Renfrow Hardware in Matthews. “Much like the azalea, it grows perfectly well in our acid clay soil. It’s a nice landscaping plant with color in the fall. They don’t require pruning, ever. And if you get a handful of blueberries, what’s wrong with that?”
There are many varieities of “rabbiteye” blueberries, so-named for a slight pinkish cast to the unripe berry, and while perhaps not strictly native, they are relatives of wild blueberries that grow in the South. Plant them anytime October through February. While the bush is small, you may need to put some bird netting over top when berries are ripening, but once the shrub is larger, you should get enough berries that sharing some with birds won’t be a problem, Blackley said. Plant a couple of different varieties to ensure good cross-pollination for fruit.
2. American Beautyberry
This southeastern U.S. native is the pick of Janet Clontz, salesperson at Pine Lake Nursery in Matthews. Its long branches are dotted with large clusters of bright purple berries, which mature before the leaves fall.
When the Callicarpa americana is full grown, it’ll develop a cascading, or weeping effect, according to the Clemson University cooperative extension. This isn’t a shrub you want to hack away at — it needs to grow naturally, in light shade or, for maximum berry color, full sun so long as you keep it watered.
This native boasts great fragrance, unusual globe-like white blossoms, and its nectar is a magnet for butterflies. And though buttonbush, Cephalanthus occidentalis, prefers wet areas, it’s proven to thrive in dry spots, too, said Carol Buie-Jackson, who runs Bird House on the Greenway, a birding shop in south Charlotte.
“In my yard, you get stuck in the ground and you’re on your own,” she said, and the buttonbush she planted by her porch has done well even during drought.
“It’s just a magnet for butterflies,” she said. “And songbirds like it.” Like other natives, buttonbush naturally has a free form, but it can be shaped if you want a more formal look, Buie-Jackson said.
A deciduous holly that is loaded with bright red berries, winterberry is a showstopper and a favorite of Jon Lindvall, plant expert at Rountree Plantation, a Charlotte nursery.
“Imagine a tree covered in red berries with no leaves. It’s just beautiful,” Lindvall said. “And birds love it.”
Winterberry, Ilex verticillata, likes full sun to part-shade and isn’t too fussy about moisture. The key to getting the berries is to plant both male and female shrubs of varieties that bloom at the same time. The female winterberry will produce the berries and you only need one male plant per four or five female winterberry shrubs.
Winterberry shouldn’t get heavy pruning. It likes acid soil, so a blanket of pinestraw beneath it is a good idea.
This shrub bears graceful fronds of white flowers in the spring and orange-red foliage in the fall. It can spread, but Kathy Treadwell, a master gardener in southeast Charlotte who recommended the shrub, said she’s kept her specimen in a large pot for five years and it’s done fine.
“It grows like forsythia, producing a lot of branches,” said Treadwell, “and it tends to colonize.” If that’s an issue, growing it in a container is an option and it lets you move the plant around your yard depending on where you want color.
Treadwell said sweetspire prefers full sun but hers is in part-shade and has grown well. Sweetspire, Itea virginica, is insect- and disease-resistant and tolerant of dry conditions, according to the N.C. Cooperative Extension. Its fall color stays on the plant into December.
Going native? Here’s a few more
These nominees were suggested by Sarah Linn, chairwoman of the native plant department at Wing Haven Gardens in Charlotte :
- Spicebush, Lindera benzoin. “It’s the larval host of the stunning spicebush swallowtail butterfly and a lovely shrub as well,” said Linn. “The caterpillar selects a leaf and folds it around itself.”
- Oakleaf Hydrangea, Hydrangea quercifolia. “It has long spikes of creamy flowers that last forever (and dry well), beautiful leathery foliage that turns in fall and sticks around,” Linn said.
- Bottlebrush buckeye, Aesculus parviflora. Hummingbirds and butterflies love this and — bonus — deer don’t.
- Fringetree, Chionanthus virginicus. It’s a large shrub or small tree with showy, cascading white blooms, dark blue berries on female plants, and yellow fall color. Great planted beneath taller trees.
Got your own native shrub recommendations? Add your comments below.