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Chesapeake Tested, Tried and True Top Native Shrubs

Shrubs add big value to the garden.  The right shrub quickly gives structure, height and blooms.  These three native shrubs are interesting, reliable and easy.  Each has more than one season of interest, is widely available and is easy to care for.  These are all large shrubs that have more compact cultivars for smaller spaces. All are widely available at garden centers and by mail.

Summersweet (Clethera alnifolia)

This 3 to 6 foot high and wide deciduous shrub is a mid-summer gem. It blooms with white or pink candle like flowers that last for weeks and attract pollinators galore.  It rarely needs pruning — no fuss, no muss. The shrub turns a yellowy, green gold in fall.  It naturally grows in moister areas but tolerates regular and clay soils easily. Once established, you can let it be and be delighted when you see it has come into bloom.  It the size is a concern, there are compact forms available. It grows and blooms in sun or partial shade but will bloom more the more sun it gets.  If you need a smaller cultivar, Clethra “Hummingbird” is a popular one.

Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)

This 3 to 6 foot high and wide deciduous shrub sports small white flowers in early summer, small dark green leaves through summer and sparkles in fall as bright red berries appear. These will last as long as the birds allow, usually until after the shrub drops its leaves providing for fantastic winter interest. These also grow naturally in moist soils but do fine in regular soil and clay soils.  Again, once established, there is very little care needed. Mature shrubs provide great berried branches for cutting.

One note — shrubs are identified as female or male. The females have the berries and you need one male within about 50′ of every three or four females to get berries. The male plants are smaller and usually tucked behind another plant as they are not “noteworthy.”  A note on “not noteworthy” – this seems to be a term used to mean you have to plant it because you need it but, if you did not need it, you would not plant it.

Winterberry grows and blooms in sun or partial shade but will bloom and have more berries the more sun it gets. The smaller cultivar is Ilex verticillata ‘Nana‘.

Oak leaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia)

This 5 to 8 foot high and wide hydrangea is fascinating in spring as the leaves unfurl in a sort of a prehistoric fashion.  The shrub then quickly leafs up and blooms with long white panicled flowers in May and June. These eventually fade to pink and brown. Leaves turn into an incredible array of maroons, reds and greens in fall. In winter, the papery bark and architectural form of the oak leaf provide great winter interest.  Once established, very little care is needed other than pruning if it gets too large. To prune, remove the tallest branches at the base of the shrub to maintain its shape. For smaller spaces, compact or dwarf cultivars are readily available.  This shrub takes shade, partial sun and full sun though partial sun seems better.

With a cool May predicted, now is a great time to add a native shrub to your Chesapeake garden.  I think you will be happy with any of these three or all three.


We want you to be as excited about planting Chesapeake natives as we are. “Plant This or That” gives you a native alternative to popular plants. Other posts highlight really fabulous fauna native to the Chesapeake.

Nuts for Natives, avid gardener, Baltimore City admirer, Chesapeake Bay Watershed restoration enthusiast, and public service fan.

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