Little-Known Shrubs

When selecting shrubs for the landscape, many gardeners choose familiar plants, such as lilacs, dogwoods, spireas, and potentillas. However, there are a number of little known shrubs that are wonderful additions to the home landscape. Though they are not widely planted and may be somewhat difficult to find, the following shrubs are excellent plants for new and existing home landscapes.

White forsythia (Abeliophyllum distichum) is a small, multi-stemmed shrub that grows 3 to 5 feet tall with an equal or slightly greater spread. White forsythia, also known as Korean abelialeaf, blooms in early spring. It blooms at about the same time as its yellow-flowered relative the forsythia, typically early to mid-April in Iowa. The white, four-petaled, fragrant flowers are borne in small clusters on arching stems. Leaves of white forsythia are oppositely arranged, 2 to 3 inches long, and medium green in color. The shrub is hardy in USDA Hardiness Zones 4b to 7.

White forsythia is easy to grow. It performs best in well-drained soils and full sun. White forsythia is free of serious insect and disease problems. Because it often possesses a straggly growth habit, Korean abelialeaf benefits from regular pruning immediately after blooming.

Pearlbush (Exochorda serratifolia) is an upright shrub that can grow up to 12 feet tall. Its most striking ornamental feature is the pure white flowers which appear in early to mid-May. The 2-inch-diameter flowers are borne on 3- to 5-inch-long racemes (spike-like floral structures). The common name comes from the pearl-like appearance of the round, pure white flower buds.

'Northern Pearl,' introduced by the University of Minnesota, is a compact cultivar that reaches a height of only 6 to 8 feet. It is covered by masses of white flowers in spring. Fall leaf color is yellow. 'Northern Pearl' is hardy in USDA Hardiness Zones 4 to 7.

The pearlbush is heat and drought tolerant. It prefers well-drained soils in partial shade to full sun. Insects and diseases are not serious problems.

An upright, arching shrub, beautybush (Kolkwitzia amabilis) grows 6 to 8 feet tall with a slightly smaller spread. It produces bell-shaped, pale pink flowers in late May to early June. Leaves of the beautybush are 1 to 3 inches long and dull green in color. The gray-brown bark on older stems often exfoliates, providing some winter interest.

'Pink Cloud' is a cultivar that was selected for its heavy bloom and clear pink flowers.

Beautybush has no serious insect or disease problems. It performs best in well-drained soils in full sun. It is hardy in zones 5 to 8.

Fothergilla (Fothergilla species) is a spectacular shrub that possesses interest throughout the growing season. In spring, the shrubs produce small, white, honey-scented flowers on 1- to 2-inch-long, upright spikes. (The flower spikes somewhat resemble small bottlebrushes.) The foliage varies from dark green to blue green in summer. Fall leaf color ranges from yellow to orange to red. Dwarf fothergilla (Fothergilla gardenii) is a small, rounded shrub that grows 2 to 3 feet tall. Large fothergilla (Fothergilla major) is more upright in form and grows about 8 feet tall.

'Blue Mist' and 'Mount Airy' are two noteworthy cultivars. 'Blue Mist' was introduced by the Morris Arboretum in Philadelphia. It forms a mounded plant 2 to 3 feet tall and possesses glaucous blue foliage. Fall leaf color, however, is often insignificant. 'Mount Airy' was selected by Michael Dirr at the Mount Airy Arboretum in Cincinnati, Ohio. This cultivar has abundant flowers in spring, blue-green foliage in summer, and yellow to orange to red fall color. 'Mount Airy' possesses an upright growth habit and grows 5 to 6 feet tall.

Fothergillas perform best in well-drained, acid soils. While they do well in partial shade to full sun, the best flower displays and fall leaf colors occur in full sun. Fothergillas have no serious insect or disease problems. They are hardy in zones 5 to 8.

Summersweet clethra is an excellent addition to the home landscape. While most trees and shrubs bloom in spring to early summer, summersweet clethra blooms in mid to late summer, usually late July through early September. The fragrant, white flowers are borne on 2- to 6-inch- long, bottlebrush-like racemes. The glossy foliage of summersweet clethra is medium to dark green. Fall leaf color is rather inconsistent, but in good years can range from pale yellow to golden brown. It grows 4 to 8 feet tall with an equal or slightly greater width.

Several noteworthy varieties are available. 'Hummingbird' is a compact cultivar which grows 3 to 4 feet tall. It has glossy green foliage and produces white flowers on 6-inch-long flower spikes. Several pink flowering cultivars are also available. 'Rosea' produces pale pink flowers that fade to white as they age. The buds on 'Pink Spires' are rose pink. The flowers gradually fade to a soft pinkish white. Both cultivars can attain a height of 6 to 8 feet. 'Ruby Spice,' discovered in 1992, is a sport of 'Pink Spires.' Unlike most pink flowering cultivars, the bright pink flowers of 'Ruby Spice' do not fade to white. It grows 4 to 6 feet tall.

Summersweet clethra is native to Maine to Florida. It is typically found in moist to wet soils. In the home landscape, summersweet clethra performs best in moist, slightly acidic soils that are high in organic matter. Summersweet clethra doesn't tolerate dry sites. It grows well in partial shade to full sun. Plants are hardy in zones 3 to 8. They are generally free of insect and disease problems.

Though native to the southeastern United States, the white fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus) is hardy to central Minnesota. The growth habit of the white fringetree is variable. Some plants are multi-stemmed and shrub-like, while others more upright and tree-like. Though the white fringetree can grow up to 30 feet tall, in landscape situations it commonly attains a height of only 10 to 20 feet. The plant's width is equal to or slightly greater than its height. In late May or early June, the white fringetree produces fleecy flower clusters. The white flowers are borne on pendulous panicles that are 6 to 8 inches long and wide. Leaves of the white fringetree are 4 to 8 inches long, 2 to 4 inches wide, and are medium to dark green. Fall leaf color is occasionally an attractive yellow.

White fringetrees grow best in well-drained, slightly acidic soils in partial shade to full sun. Insects and diseases are not major problems. It is hardy in zones 4 to 9.

The next time you're at a garden center or nursery, check to see if they have the aforementioned shrubs. Though they are somewhat difficult to find, they are beautiful additions to the home landscape.

This article originally appeared in the April 21, 2000 issue, pp. 38-39.

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