Shrubs for the Perennial Garden

By Kate Jerome

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.

Hardy Shrubs

Tardiva hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata 'Tardiva'). This lovely plant grows well in sun or shade, and will grow 6 to 8 feet, making a nice statement in the landscape. It starts blooming in midsummer with huge panicles of showy, white florets surrounding smaller fertile flowers. The effect is stunning. One of its best traits is that the flowers never give up, spending the entire summer, turning tawny gold in fall, and standing loyal through the entire winter.

Onandaga viburnum (Viburnum sargentii 'Onandaga'). I planted five of these last fall, and they knocked my socks off this spring as they began to bloom. The flowers are the lacecap type, like Tardiva hydrangea's, with large, sterile florets surrounding smaller, fertile flowers. But these flowers are maroon in bud, opening to soft pink. With blossoms that persist through the summer, deep maroon fall foliage, and crisp red berries to hang on through the winter, this shrub lends a burst of color to the perennial garden.

Dwarf fothergilla (Fothergilla gardenii). This appealing, diminutive shrub blooms in spring with honey-scented flowers that look like bottlebrushes, and they are hummingbird magnets! The deep green, puckered foliage is a beautiful foil for all types of perennials through the summer, and then the shrub turns magnificent shades of orange, red, and yellow in fall.

Roses. For adding color to the perennial garden, don't forget roses. There are countless types available in a myriad of colors, shapes, and sizes. One that makes a stunning statement and is seldom planted is the redleaf rose (Rosa rubrifolia). It grows 4 to 6 feet high and is covered with rich maroon foliage the entire summer. Soft pink, single blossoms emerge midsummer, followed by orange-red rose hips that remain through the fall and winter.

Hypericum 'Hidcote'

Dieback Shrubs

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.

Onandaga viburnum in its spring glory!

Kate Jerome was the National Gardening Association's reporter for the Northern & Central Midwest region.

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