If you've ever searched for plants to use in certain locations, conditions, or just a "Best Plants for xxx" list, the same cast of characters inevitably shows up. Yes, there's a reason for it - the plants listed are typically very appropriate for the criteria selected, are easily found at nurseries, and have a history of success in the garden. As a counter to these, I've decided to periodically provide alternative lists of plants that aren't as popular but should be used more. Maybe I'm just tired of seeing the same plants used everywhere, or maybe it's a feeling of sympathy for other plants that don't seem to get the love or respect they deserve.
The series kicks off here by covering the flowering shrub category. So instead of just sticking with Azaleas and Knockout Roses, try these multi seasonal shrubs that bring interest to your garden beyond their flowering period.
Virginia Sweetspire (Itea virginica)
This plant epitomizes the meaning of multi-seasonal. Although late to leaf up in late spring, it extends white bottlebrush-like plumes to announce its arrival. Its medium green summer foliage on arching branches turns a brilliant red in the fall.
The native Sweetspire is an informal looking plant that should not be pruned other than snipping back some wayward branches. It can survive in all kinds of conditions, from sun to shade, but does best with regular moisture, and can survive wet locations. Cultivars include 'Henry's Garnet', 'Little Henry' and 'Merlot'.
Most varieties are in the 3' - 4' height range.
Virginia Sweetspire in the spring and fall.
Fothergilla (Fothergilla gardenii or major)
Fothergilla is much like Sweetspire - it's a native plant with white bottlebrush like flowers in spring and turns a brilliant color in fall. Fothergilla offers a large option, Fothergilla major, which grows 6' - 10' tall, and Fothergilla gardenii, which stays 3 '- 5' in height. Flowering in April or May, its leaves are quilt-like in the green to blue-green hue. Fall foliage can vary from gold to orange to red or a combination thereof.
Fothergilla needs full sun for the best fall color, but needs regular watering in hot climates, where it may be more optimal to place in a site with afternoon shade. Some suckering may occur with the gardenii species.
This plant is great in shrub groups and can be used as an accent plant in a small garden.
'Mt Airy' is a commonly found cultivar.
Mohawk Viburnum (Viburnum x burkwoodii 'Mohawk')
Viburnums in general are well known, with some like Snowball and Doublefile commonly used. One that is quite outstanding that goes more unnoticed is Mohawk Viburnum, a hybrid cross between X burkwoodii and carlesii. It has several outstanding features: clusters of dark red flower buds in early spring prior to bloom in April-May; waxy white flowers with red undersides; and glossy dark foliage that turns red-orange in autumn. Better yet, it is resistant to bacterial leaf spot and powdery mildew.
Mohawk grows to 8' - 10' tall and wide, and also has a spicy clove fragrance. It does best in sun, but place in afternoon shade in the south. It needs average moisture.
Use it as a specimen plant or in the background of a perennial or small shrub border.
Red or Black Chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia or melancarpa)
Chokeberry is another native plant that has outstanding qualities. Red Chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia) grows 6 '- 10' tall and 3' - 5' wide. Its foliage turns red or purple-red in fall, when red fruits also appear and lasting through December. (If the plant is placed in a part shade site, its fall color will be more orange red). Red Chokeberry likes moist sites and can form non-aggressive colonies by suckering. It tends to lose foliage at its base, so planting low growing shrubs or perennials in front of it is recommended. Red Chokeberry is more often seen in the Southeast, and is a great alternative to the invasive Burning Bush.
Both Red and Black Chokeberry have white petal flowers in spring. Black Chokeberry (Aronia melancarpa) is smaller, growing 4 '- 8' tall. Its foliage turns yellow-orange and red in the fall. It has black fruit that is larger in size, and the fruits appear in late summer. Black Chokeberry is more dense and does not get leggy like Red Chokeberry. Black Chokeberry tolerates a wider variety of sites, both wet and dry, and is more seen in the Northeast and Midwest.
The best flowering and fruiting occurs if Chokeberry is placed in Full Sun.