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Return of the Native... Shrubs

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Published on: Apr. 2, 1998

Last revision: Oct. 28, 2010

When Missouri was a wild, unsettled country, a great variety of native plants grew where our cities and towns now stand. Ten thousand years of temperate climate, following the retreat of the most recent glacier, allowed a complex assembly of plants and animals to develop.

Native shrubs were an important part of the vegetation, furnishing both food and cover for many kinds of animals. Insects fed on their leaves, nectar and pollen, and mammals and birds enjoyed their fruits and seeds, as well as cover from predation. Fungi and microorganisms interacted with the plants above and below ground in complex relationships.

With settlement, the clearing of land for homes and businesses eliminated most native shrubbery from developed areas. Residents even cleared lands protected as parks to create more open spaces between trees.

Although gardeners have always planted shrubs in developed landscapes, traditional choices were shrubs native to Europe and Asia. They chose species for their showy spring flowers, brilliant autumn foliage color, growth form or unusual bark.

Some non-native shrubs have come to dominate undeveloped tracts within cities and towns. Shrub or bush honeysuckles, native to Asia, form solid stands within some undeveloped wooded lots in St. Louis, where a variety of native shrubs once grew. Thankfully, most introduced shrubs are more tame and do not usually spread from where they are planted.

Because homeowners have so widely planted non-native shrubs, native shrubs often are exiled to areas outside of city limits. The diversity of shrub species within cities and towns is lowered by the absence of native species, and homeowners' selections tend to come from a relatively small number of popular non-native shrubs. The dwarf winged burning bush, for example, though native to China and Japan, is more common in many Missouri towns and cities than any of our native shrubs.

Today we see a renewed interest in planting native species in residential settings-one part of a movement called "naturescaping." Native plants now are readily available through both specialty and traditional nurseries. Native shrubs still are harder to obtain than wildflowers, because there has been less demand to justify the growers' additional time to produce commercial-size planting stock.

Because native shrubs have not been bred for the refined shapes that typify many non-native selections, you should allow plenty of room for native shrubs to develop. Some eventually may grow to the height of small trees. Consider the shrubs listed here for your next landscaping project.

Ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius)

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