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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)

This deciduous shrub's name derives from its interesting peeling bark on older stems, the brownish outer bark contrasting with rusty to pinkish inner layers. Ninebark produces abundant clusters of small white flowers in May or June that are attractive to a variety of insects. Fruits are yellowish, dry capsules that turn reddish-brown in the fall.

Ninebark grows to a height of about 5 feet with multiple stems that spread into a rounded crown. Its appearance can benefit from regular pruning. Fall foliage varies from yellow-green to shades of pink and orange. Ninebark grows in a variety of soil and moisture conditions, but it is not shade tolerant.

Fragrant Sumac (Rhus aromatica)

You can see this plant's resemblance to poison ivy in its leaves, but it shares none of poison ivy's toxic qualities. A deciduous shrub, fragrant sumac is available in two varieties. Variety aromatica is shorter in height (up to 4 feet) and flowers as early as late March, before its leaves emerge. The taller variety, serotina, can reach 7 feet tall and flowers after the leaves have begun to emerge.

Both types produce tight clusters of small, yellow flowers and clusters of hairy, reddish berries that mature in late summer. The shorter variety makes a good foundation planting, and you can use the taller variety for screening during the growing season. Fragrant sumac is drought tolerant and does best in full sun. Fall foliage is orange to scarlet.

Hazelnut (Corylus americana)

An American relative of the European hazelnut, or filbert, whose fruits are available commercially, our hazelnut also has an edible fruit that is relished by wildlife. Hazelnut grows as a thicket-forming shrub up to 10 feet in height. You can use hazelnuts as a border or for a mass planting. On rocky, poorer sites, hazelnuts are shorter in height but still grow well.

Flowers are inconspicuous, although the male birchlike catkins add winter interest to the leafless stems. Hazelnuts bear early autumn-maturing nuts in a cluster of overlapping leaflike bracts. Fall colors range from yellow to orange to red. Plant hazelnuts in full sun to partial shade with average moisture conditions.

Eastern Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana)

One of two native witch hazels, eastern witch hazel is more tolerant of average soil moisture conditions than the streamside Ozark, or vernal, witch hazel. Both deciduous shrubs are of interest for their attractive foliage and their habit of blooming during the winter. People have used witch hazels for centuries in medicines as well as for divining or dowsing sticks to search for water sources.

Eastern witch hazel can bloom from November through December, making it often the last Missouri shrub to flower during the year. The yellow flowers have a spicy fragrance and can be somewhat showy when borne on leafless branches. Fruits are hard capsules that split open suddenly when mature, expelling the seeds as far as 30 feet. Preferring light shade, eastern witch hazel can grow to a height of 10 to 12 feet. Autumn foliage is yellow.

Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia)

Although resembling the more widespread Ohio buckeye, red buckeye seldom grows to more than 10 to 15 feet in height. Native to parts of southern Missouri, gardeners can grow it at least as far north as central Missouri. The deep red flower clusters are a magnet for hummingbirds during April and May. Fruits contain several hard, shiny "buckeyes" within a leathery husk. Both fruits and leaves are poisonous if eaten, and wildlife largely ignores the seeds.

Red buckeye prefers rich soil and partial shade. Its dark green leaves appear early in spring and are shed after yellowing in late summer or fall.

Fringe Tree (Chionanthus virginicus)

During its flowering period in April and May, fringe tree really shines. Its drooping clusters of fringelike white flowers almost obscure the emerging leaves. It also goes by the other common name of "old man's beard." Individual shrubs function as male or female plants, with the male plants being more showy in flower. It may be difficult to locate plants of known sex, however, because most propagation is from seed. The sex of the shrubs is not known until they reach flowering age.

In late summer the blue-black ripe fruits resemble small olives. Fringe tree performs best in full sun or light shade and tolerates a wide range of soil moisture conditions. Although the shrub is native to parts of southern Missouri, you can plant fringe tree throughout the state. Old shrubs may reach a height of 20 feet, usually forming a broad, rounded crown with multiple stems.

Additional information on Missouri shrubs can be found in a new Conservation Department publication, Shrubs and Woody Vines of Missouri, which provides descriptions and illustrations of 170 species, including native shrubs with potential for use in home landscaping. You can buy it in paperback from Conservation Department nature centers and offices that sell publications, or you can order it directly by sending $9 to Missouri Department of Conservation, Nature Shop, P.O. Box 180, Jefferson City, 65102-0180. Missouri residents add 6.225 percent sales tax. Shipping for one book is $2.00.

Naturescaping is the practice of creating landscaping that closely matches native habitats in your region. It results in a less formal arrangement of native plantings to provide food and cover for wildlife. Corridors for wildlife, accessible water sources, brushpiles and basking areas may be used to create a more wildlife-friendly backyard habitat.

Good reasons for using native plants in residential landscaping include:

  • Many species provide excellent food and cover for native wildlife.
  • Natives are adapted to Missouri's climate and soils and require little or no watering or fertilizing. Keep in mind, however, that soil disturbances associated with construction, such as compaction, grading or topsoil removal, can create poor growing conditions for any plants.
  • Native species are less likely to suffer from plant pests or diseases, having adapted to coexist with local threats. This, in combination with less watering or fertilizing, can result in substantial cost savings over the life of native plants.
  • Natives add diversity to residential landscapes that are largely devoid of native plants.

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