University of Illinois Extension

Multi-Season Shrubs

Because shrubs can be expensive, it pays to take the time to select the right one for your yard, said Sharon Yiesla, U of I Extension horticulturist.

"There are a number of things to consider when selecting a shrub," said Yiesla. "First, we need to select a shrub that is winter-hardy in our area. We also need to consider soil conditions such as pH and drainage."

Yiesla recommended a number of shrubs for consideration that have a multi-season interest, require lower maintenance, can endure tough conditions, and tolerate a variety of soil conditions.

"To get the most out of a shrub, look for one that has multi-season interest--flowers, fall color, even foliage that says good looking all season," she said. "A shrub that looks good in more than one season can be a real attribute to the landscape."

It is important to consider how tall and wide a shrub will get in order to know if there is enough room in the yard for it. Size can also affect form. If a shrub is given enough room to grow, it will develop a characteristic form. If it is crowded, it will be misshapen.

"A shrub with good form can be a good visual asset in the landscape," she said. Maintenance needs should always be considered. Some shrubs are high maintenance due to pests, messy fruit, or weak wood.

Examples of low-maintenance shrubs:

Caryopteris x clandonensis (Bluebeard) grows two to three feet tall with a similar width. It grows in full sun to partial shade and is drought-tolerant. It is often sold as a perennial instead of a shrub and it can be cut to the ground each year because it flowers only on new wood.

"Ornamental features include a gray-green foliage, clusters of small blue or blue-purple flowers from late summer into fall, and clusters of light-brown seed heads that last well into winter," she said. "This plant has no common serious problems. Cultivars include 'Dark Knight,' which has deep purple-blue flowers and 'Azure,' which has bright blue flowers."

Fothergilla gardenii (Dwarf Fothergilla) is a U.S. native that grows two to four feet tall with a similar spread. It grows in full sun to partial shade and prefers--but does not demand--a slightly acid soil. Good drainage is important.

"Ornamental features include small, fragrant white flowers in one to two-inch bottlebrush-like clusters in spring; leathery, dark green leaves resembling those of witch-hazel, and excellent fall color--a mix of yellow, orange, and scarlet," she said. "This plant, too, has no common serious problems."

Kerria japonica (Japanese Kerria) rows three to five feet tall with a similar to slightly larger spread and an arching, mounded form. This versatile shrub can grow in part to full shade and needs moist, well-drained soil.

"Ornamental features include yellow, five-petaled flowers in mid-spring; crisp bright green leaves; an arching form; mild yellow fall color; and bright green stems all winter," she said. "This plant has no serious common problems."

Its cultivars include 'Golden Guinea', which has flowers larger than those of the species and lasting for a longer period; 'Picta' with leaves edged with white, best grown in some shade to avoid burning the leaves; and 'Pleniflora' with double flowers.

Physocarpus opulifolius (Common Ninebark) is native to the United States and grows five to 10 feet tall with a similar to slightly larger spread and rounded form. It has upright, slightly arching stems. It grows in full sun to partial shade and is best in moist, well-drained soils. It can tolerate alkaline soil and both wet and dry sites.

Ornamental features include clusters of small white or pinkish flowers in late spring and early summer; medium-green leaves, seldom marred by insects or diseases; mild yellow to reddish fall color; clusters of pinkish fruit capsules from late summer into fall; and peeling bark on older stems. This shrub also has no common serious problems.

Cultivars include 'Diablo' with red-purple to maroon leaves and 'Summer Wine' which has wine-colored foliage and is about half the size of the species.

Rhus aromatica (Fragrant Sumac) is also a U.S. native and grows two to six feet tall with six to 10 feet spread. It grows in full sun to shade and prefers moist, well-drained soils. It will tolerate dry soil and grows more slowly in wet soils.

Ornamental features include very glossy leaves all season; bright red fruit on female plants in late summer; and orange-red to red-purple fall color. Leaf spots, aphids, and scale insects are occasional problems.

"The most popular cultivar is 'Gro-Low', which is only two feet tall with good fall color," said Yiesla.

Viburnum trilobum (American Cranberrybush Viburnum) is native to the United States, grows eight to 12 feet tall and wide. It grows in full sun to partial shade and is best in moist, well-drained soils.

It tolerates wet soils and is pH adaptable.

Ornamental features include white, "lacecap"-type flowers---a ring of showy, sterile flowers surrounding a cluster of tiny, fertile flowers-- in spring; deep-green foliage with a maple-like shape; yellow-red or reddish-purple fall color; and bright red, cranberry-like fruit that will shrivel in late winter like red raisins.

"The fruit is edible and often used for jelly," she said. "There are no common serious problems."