Gardening Articles: Flowers :: Perennials

Shrubs for the Perennial Garden

by Kate Jerome


Onandaga viburnum in its spring glory!

When we think of shrubs, most of us picture foundation plants or a shrub border. Of course shrubs are naturals for these situations, but there is another setting for shrubs -- especially blooming ones -- that we don't always consider: the perennial garden. Blooming shrubs lend the beauty of their flowers to the perennial garden, and also supply something else that most perennial gardens need: "bones," or a sense of structure.

Here in the Midwest, ornamental shrubs suited to the perennial garden fall into two categories. The first group responds to our climate like herbaceous perennials do, dying back to the ground in winter and sending up new shoots in spring. Unlike many large herbaceous perennials, they grow big enough to make an impact, but their woody stems are generally quite sturdy and seldom need support to keep them upright. Because of their habit of dying back to the ground, most of them are mid- to late-summer bloomers, another plus in the perennial garden. And there's no mystery to pruning them-just cut the dead stems back to the ground in the spring!

In milder years the stems of these shrubs may stay alive through the winter, but in most cases they die completely. Even if some of the stems do stay alive, it is a good idea to cut them back in spring for a more attractive plant. The stems tend to look leggy and sparse when they survive the winter.

The other group includes fully hardy shrubs whose multiple charms change with the seasons. In addition to colorful, fragrant blossoms, many have striking foliage in summer and autumn. Gardeners especially welcome their presence in winter. As dormant "sculptures," they catch snow, and show off their colorful bark, geometric stems, or dried blossoms or fruit that hang on through winter. (An added bonus is that persistent fruits attract birds to the winter garden.)

Here's a selection of my favorites from each category.

Dieback Shrubs

Dieback Shrubs
Hypericum 'Hidcote'

Butterfly Bush (Buddleia). The sweetly scented, bottlebrush flower clusters are absolute magnets for a wide variety of butterflies. This durable plant will thrive in almost any well-drained soil as long as it is in a sunny spot. Colors range from clear white to pink to the deepest purple-black, and some have variegated foliage.

Hypericum 'Hidcote'. This delightful plant grows only about 3 feet high but is graced with delicately arching stems; tidy, blue-green foliage; and bright, lemon-yellow blossoms with a fireworks display of prominent stamens. These sturdy shrubs perform best in full sun and well-drained soil.

Bluebeard (Caryopteris). Bluebeard comes on strong in spring with silvery, almost-white toothed foliage, followed by the clearest blue, starry flowers in late summer. Together these colors are magnificent. There are cultivars available with dark purple flowers and light powder-blue flowers as well. Give it full sun and well-drained soil.

Beautyberry (Callicarpa). This plant is generally grown for its lovely purplish pink fruits. The pink flowers appear amidst deep green flowers in midsummer, followed by berries that are spectacular when the leaves drop in the fall. This dieback shrub will tolerate some shade.

Chaste-Tree (Vitex). Chaste-tree is similar in appearance to bluebeard except that the blossoms are in large panicles of blue-purple. It also needs full sun and well-drained soil.

'Annabelle' Hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens). Although a few of its stems usually survive the winter, this old-fashioned beauty is best used as a dieback shrub. Prune back surviving stems in spring so they won't detract from the lush new growth and full flower heads.

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