Small, Deciduous Shrubs for the Landscape

News Article

When selecting shrubs for the home landscape, our choices are often based on their ornamental characteristics, such as flowers, fruit, or fall foliage. Unfortunately, their mature size is sometimes overlooked. Disregarding plant size often creates problems, such as shrubs blocking windows or interfering with pedestrian traffic. Poorly selected plants also require greater maintenance.

There are many locations in the home landscape that require small shrubs (those 4 feet or less in height). Small shrubs are appropriate choices for foundation plantings, rock gardens, and areas near sidewalks and driveways. Some small shrubs also can be used as groundcovers or planted in mass.

Listed below are several small, deciduous shrubs that are excellent choices for Iowa landscapes. (The width of most shrubs is equal to or slightly larger than their height.)

Cranberry Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster apiculatus)

Size: 2 to 3 feet tall
USDA Hardiness Zone: 4
Leaf Characteristics: Glossy, dark green leaves turn to maroon in fall.
Flowers: Small, pinkish white flowers are produced in late spring.
Fruit: Round, 1/3-inch-diameter fruit turn cranberry red in late summer and persist into winter.
Remarks: Cranberry cotoneaster is a low, spreading shrub that performs best in moist, well-drained soils in partial shade to full sun. However, it will grown in most soils (wet soils are an exception). Fireblight is an occasional problem. Maintenance also can be a problem as plants collect leaves and other debris.

Burkwood Daphne (Daphne x burkwoodii)

Size: 3 to 4 feet tall
USDA Hardiness Zone: 4
Leaf Characteristics: Blue-green leaves are semi-evergreen.
Flowers: Fragrant, pinkish white flowers are produced in May.
Remarks: Daphne is somewhat difficult to grow. It requires well-drained, neutral to slightly alkaline soils. Plants perform best in full sun to partial shade.
Suggested Cultivars: 'Carol Mackie' has blue-green leaves with cream-colored margins. Flowers are pinkish white. 'Somerset' has blue-green leaves and pinkish white flowers.

Bush Honeysuckle (Diervilla lonicera)

Size: 3 feet tall
USDA Hardiness Zone: 3
Leaf Characteristics: Newly emerged foliage is green with a bronze tint. Leaves may develop orange to red fall color.
Flowers: Small, yellow, trumpet-shaped flowers are produced in June or July.
Remarks: Bush honeysuckles are shade tolerant shrubs. They also sucker freely. Plants are often used as a groundcover on shady slopes.
Suggested Cultivars: 'Copper' has copper-colored new leaves and good fall color.

Dwarf Fothergilla (Fothergilla gardenii)

Size: 2 to 3 feet tall
USDA Hardiness Zone: 5
Leaf Characteristics: Foliage varies from dark green to blue-green in summer. Fall color ranges from yellow to orange to red.
Flowers: Small, white, honey-scented flowers are borne on 1 to 2-inch-long, upright flower spikes in spring.
Remarks: Fothergillas perform best in well-drained, acid soils in partial shade to full sun.
Suggested Cultivars: 'Blue Mist' has glaucous blue foliage in summer. Fall color is poor.

Smooth Hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens)

Size: 4 feet tall
USDA Hardiness Zone: 4
Leaf Characteristics: Leaves are large (up to 8 inches long and 6 inches wide) and medium green. May develop a soft yellow color in fall.
Flowers: Are borne in 4-to 6-inch-diameter, flattish clusters in summer. Flower clusters are comprised of small, fertile flowers and large, showy, sterile flowers.
Remarks: Plants perform best in moist, well-drained soils in partial shade.
Suggested Cultivars: 'Annabelle' produces large, roundish flower heads that may be up to 12 inches in diameter. The flower heads on 'Grandiflora' are up to 6 to 8 inches wide. The flower heads of both varieties are primarily composed of sterile flowers.

'Emerald Mound' Honeysuckle (Lonicera xylosteum 'Emerald Mound')

Size: 3 feet tall
USDA Hardiness Zone: 4
Leaf Characteristics: Foliage is blue-green in summer. Little or no fall color.
Flowers: Small, creamy white flowers are produced in spring. Not showy.
Fruit: Small berries ripen in summer, becoming dark red.
Remarks: This dense, mounded cultivar is often used as a low-growing hedge. Adaptable to most soils.

Potentilla (Potentilla fruticosa)

Size: 2 to 3 feet tall
USDA Hardiness Zone: 3
Leaf Characteristics: Foliage varies from gray-green to medium green in summer. Fall color is not ornamental, typically brownish yellow.
Flowers: Plants flower from late spring through summer. Yellow, gold, white, pink, red, and orange flowering cultivars are available. Unfortunately, the flowers of pink, red, and orange varieties often fade badly in Iowa's summer heat.
Remarks: Potentillas possess excellent heat and drought tolerance. Shrubs often develop a straggly, unkempt appearance in 2 or 3 years. Rejuvenate straggly plants by pruning them back to the ground in late winter.
Suggested Cultivars: 'Abbotswood' (white flowers), 'Coronation Triumph' (bright yellow), 'Goldfinger' (golden yellow), 'McKay's White' (creamy white), 'Pink Beauty' (pale pink), and 'Primrose Beauty' (pale yellow).

Japanese Spirea (Spiraea japonica)

Size: 3 to 4 feet tall
USDA Hardiness Zone: 3
Leaf Characteristics: Leaves are dark green in summer.
Flowers: Small, pink flowers are borne in 6-to 8-inch-wide, flat-topped clusters in summer. Plants bloom on new growth.
Remarks: The Japanese Spirea is a tough, easy to grow shrub. Plants perform best in well-drained soils in full sun.
Suggested Cultivars: 'Goldmound' (golden yellow leaves fade to yellow-green by summer, pink flowers), 'Little Princess' (light pink flowers), 'Magic Carpet' (reddish orange foliage becomes bronzy green by summer, dark pink flowers), and 'Shibori' (multi-colored flower clusters of white, pink, and rose; also sold as 'Shirobana').

Bumald Spirea (Spiraea x bumalda)

Size: 3 to 4 feet tall.
USDA Hardiness Zone: 3
Leaf Characteristics: New foliage is reddish purple, but eventually matures to green. Fall color is yellow to reddish bronze.
Flowers: Small, white to pink flowers are borne in 4-to 6-inch-diameter, flat-topped clusters in summer. Plants bloom on new growth.
Remarks: Bumald spireas are tough, adaptable shrubs. Plants prefer well-drained soils and full sun. Suggested Cultivars: 'Anthony Waterer' (carmine-pink flowers), 'Coccinea' (carmine-red flowers), 'Froebelii' (pink flowers), and 'Goldflame' (brownish orange foliage matures to green, pink flowers).

Indiancurrant Coralberry (Symphoricarpos orbiculatus)

Size: 3 to 4 feet tall.
USDA Hardiness Zone: 3
Leaf Characteristics: Foliage is dull green in summer. Little or no fall color.
Flowers: Small flowers are creamy white with a pink blush. Plants bloom in July.
Fruit: Small, berry-like fruit turn purplish red in fall and persist into winter.
Remarks: Indiancurrant coralberry has limited ornamental value. However, it is very adaptable. Plants grow in clay soils, shade, and other difficult sites. They also sucker freely and can be used as a groundcover on steep slopes. Common snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus) produces small, pinkish flowers followed by white fruit.

In addition to the aforementioned shrubs, there are dwarf cultivars of many taller shrub species. Examples include 'Hummingbird' summersweet clethra (3 feet tall), 'Miniature Snowflake' mockorange (4 feet tall), 'Gro-Low' fragrant sumac (2 feet tall), 'Green Mound' alpine currant (3 feet tall), and 'Minuet' weigela (2 feet tall). There are also numerous dwarf cultivars of Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii), such as 'Crimson Pygmy' (1 1/2 feet tall), Gold Nugget (1 1/2 feet tall), and Burgundy Carousel (3 feet tall).

The shrub heights listed above are approximations based on their performance in home landscapes. Plant genetics and environmental factors, such as soil texture, soil fertility, and the amount of sunlight, determine their mature size. In favorable growing sites, shrubs may get slightly larger than normal.

This article originally appeared in the February 21, 2003 issue, pp. 14-15.

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