Extension Educator, Horticulture
Some plants seem to take a long time to reach any popularity even though they possess unique characteristics. Bad publicists I guess. A few pictures in the right magazines can launch a shrub's popularity and demand. All of the following shrubs are finally getting some well-deserved attention.
Unique attributes of these shrubs are their shade tolerance and interesting flowers, a combination not often seen in shrubs. Although they are all adaptable to a variety of sites, they would prefer moist, acidic and well drained soils. However, they are not nearly as finicky as rhododendrons or blueberries. A soil test, adding sulfur if necessary, adding compost, using fertilizers for acid loving plants and watering during drought periods will help all of these shrubs to thrive.
Summersweet Clethra, Clethra alnifolia, is an excellent shrub for year around interest offering fragrant flowers, attractive leaves and interesting form. Its upright growth reaching 3-8 feet tall makes it appropriate for narrow spaces such as next to home foundations or in perennial borders.
Summersweet's finest attributes are its shade tolerance and its late season, long lasting and fragrant flowers. The flowers of white, pink or rose appear when few other plants are blooming in July through August. It has few insect and disease problems but thrives best in moist acidic soils.
Some of Summersweet's notable cultivars include 'Hummingbird' with its 3-4 feet tall low mound and abundantly produced white flowers. 'Rosea' has glossy leaves and pink flowers.
Bottlebrush buckeye, Aesculus parviflora, also offers summer flowers and prefers shady locations. It makes an excellent specimen plant or as a massed planting. Bottlebrush buckeye is native to Georgia and Alabama. Its spreading multistems reach 9-12 feet high and 15 feet wide, which gives it an interesting winter form.
Bottlebrush buckeye has flowers resembling its name with large white panicles 8-12 inches long and 4 inches wide in July and August. In flower, buckeyes are real car stoppers.
Spicebush, Lindera benzoin, is another native shrub with interesting flowers. Although the greenish yellow flowers are much smaller than the buckeyes, they are flowering now in April before the leaves and may last for 3-4 weeks. Spicebush will grow in deep shade, but its best flowering and fall color occur when it has some sun. The scarlet fruit ripening in August through October is attractive to birds. For best fruiting a male and female shrub is necessary. The stems are spicely aromatic and were once used to make a tea.
Witch Alder, Fothergilla gardenii, is a slow growing shrub only reaching 2-3 feet tall with a compact mounded habit. Another shrub with year around appeal, fothergilla has fragrant flowers of cream colored bottlebrushes. It is also flowering now before the leaves appear. It has magnificent fall color of yellow, orange and crimson and will grow in sun or shade. Fothergilla works in nicely with rhododendrons or as a foundation plant. 'Blue Mist' is a very attractive cultivar with blue green leaves.
Some other wall flower shrubs for shady spots include: Flameleaf sumac, Rhus copallina, known for its spectacular red purple fall color; Winterberry, Ilex verticillata, renowned for its lovely winter fruit display and great tolerance for wet areas; Oakleaf hydrangea, Hydrangea quercifolia, makes a dramatic show with large white flower panicles, burgundy fall color and cinnamon brown bark; and Hypericum 'Sunburst'shows off its lovely yellow flowers in July when few other shrubs are blooming. Lesser known shrubs may require some extra effort in locating sources, but many garden centers will make special orders if you ask now.
Visit us at the University of Illinois Horticulture Club's Flower Show at the Stock Pavilion on April 21 from 9am-5pm and April 22 from 9am-2pm and the Junior Women's League's Artful Garden Gala on April 21 from 9am-4pm at the Champaign County Fairgrounds.