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10 Underused Shrubs

Every nursery has their share of popular plants, but what about the plants that don’t make it into the limelight?  There are many attractive plants that simply get overlooked because the same “usual suspects” are routinely used over and over. Granted, people like to stick with what they know, but variety is the spice of life. So, if you are at the nursery and see something that strikes your fancy, ask about it! It may just be that great foundation planting that will change the entire look of your landscape. Read on…

Foundation plantings, those that are at the base of your home’s foundation, are a necessity for almost all landscaping applications.  Although no two homes are exactly alike, sadly many of the same evergreen shrubs are planted at their foundations. There are so many plants to choose from and new cultivars are released every year. With a little knowledge you can spice up your yard and differentiate it from your neighbor’s landsacping very easily. This brings me to the main focus of this article:  Ten shrubs that are often underused and overlooked in the landscape.

Foundation plantings are usually a starting point for most people; this is where the “usual suspects” come into to play.  Many people play it safe and use boxwoods and japanese hollies for this type of application. Granted, these two plants are great choices with hardy cultivars, but they are everywhere! Next time you are out, take note of the homes in your neighborhood and the plants at the base of their foundation. It is a safe bet that at least one of these will come into play.  Landscapers often plant these two plants in both the sun and shade.  Unfortunately, the vigor of these plants is often compromised due to their exposure (or lack thereof) to the elements.

10. Itea virginica & 9. Dwarf Rhododendron
First, let’s think about the hot, full sun in the summer.  A great hardy, compact, and evergreen shrub is Itea virginica.  This plant offers lightly fragrant flowers in the summer and a spectacular display of fall foliage color.  Pruning each season will be necessary to maintain solid form as a foundation shrub.  Moving on to a shadier spot, what about Rhododendron?  True, rhododendrons have been used for years as fountain shrubs, but think about their size at maturity; they get very large. There are many “dwarf” cultivars available that make fantastic foundation shrubs.  (“Dwarf” is in quotations because the term is used relatively.)  ‘PJM’, ‘Nova Zembla’ and ‘Holden’ are just to name a few; all three cultivars are 5’ or less.

8. Cephalotaxus drupacea & 7. Leucothoe  axillaris ‘Scarletta’
Two more versatile, low growing foundation shrubs are Cephalotaxus drupacea and Leucothoe  axillaris ‘Scarletta’.  This duo offers great texture and dark green foliage in the growing season.  Leucothoe will also provide spring flowers and winter foliage that is a unique maroon color.  Oh yeah, did I mention they are deer resistant? Just another great reason to incorporate these two gems into your landscape. Be sure to provide light shade and plenty of airflow and you will be able to enjoy these plants for years to come.

6. Illicium parviflorum
Screening in a shaded area is another problem that many people come across in the landscape.  I know what you are thinking and I am going to stop you! Do not plant Leyland Cypress!  Unfortunately, Leyland Cypress is the first thing that comes to mind when we hear the word “screen” in the landscape.  This plant does not stand a chance in the shade in our climate.  A large growing, evergreen screening shrub for the shade is Illicium parviflorum (also referred to as Anise).  While it grows beautifully in the shade, it can also take full sun and thrive just as well.  Not only does this large evergreen shrub offer dense screening it also boasts great texture.  Think Illicium the next time you need a privacy screen in the shade.

5. Fatsia japonica
While we are still hanging out in the shade, maybe a large specimen plant is needed to help anchor an area.  Fatsia japonica is a stunning specimen with large tropical-looking leaves.  Don’t let the appearance fool you; this great tropical-looking species is cold hardy and evergreen!  (Also referred to as Japanese Aralia.)

While it is nice to stay cool in the shade, most landscapes have sunny areas, too.  As everyone knows, our summers are very hot (maybe even considered by some as downright brutal!).  Full sun landscaping applications are often present in new developments.  What plants can take our hot summer sun and give interest at the same time?  Lets begin with early spring.

4. Chaenomeles japonica or Chaenomeles speciosa
Most people mistake this plant as an early flowering rose.  From a distance, it has even fooled me from time to time.  It is not until closer inspection that it becomes apparent that it is a woody shrub of some sort.  The plant in reference is Chaenomeles japonica or Chaenomeles speciosa, also known as Flowering Quince.  This is an early flowering shrub that produces and abundance of blooms.  Just this year (2010) four new cultivars have been released; they include:  ‘Dragons Blood’, ‘Scarlet Storm’, ‘Orange Storm’ and ‘Pink Storm’. Try using this plant as a specimen accent or as a deciduous hedge.

3. Viburnum x burkwoodii ‘Mohawk’
With a focus on specimen planting, I now will turn to a diverse and large group of shrubs: Viburnum.  One in particular comes to mind, Viburnum x burkwoodii ‘Mohawk.’  This cultivar offers ornamental attributes three seasons out of the year.  It features bright red flower buds in the spring (that are ornamental by themselves) that mature into pure white flowers that have a strong, spicy fragrance. This fragrance makes me think of southern spring gardens every time I come across it!  Hold on, we’re not  finished!  The dark green leaves of this plant slowly change into a brilliant orange-red color in the fall.  This cultivar of Viburnum has a compact growth habit reaching 10’ in height and width and is often found in tree-form.

2. Vitex agnus-castus
Specimen plantings always have at least one attribute that really makes them stand out.  This stunning plant delivers the “wow factor” when it is in full bloom.  Vitex agnus-castus is a midsummer flowering plant that features blue flowers (the closest “true blue” flower color in woody shrubs).  Like Viburnum ‘Mohawk,’ this is a compact growing shrub that can be found in tree form.  It is absolutely covered in flowers when in full bloom and attracts a lot of flying wildlife, including bees, hummingbirds and butterflies.

1. Callicarpa americana
Flowers are often the first thing considered when trying to achieve color in the landscape.  In addition to flower color, keep in mind that many plants offer foliage or fruit color throughout the year.  One plant that, I personally believe, is greatly underused is Callicarpa americana, commonly known as American Beautyberry.  This native species blooms in late summer and features clusters of little white flowers.  Although, the flowers are not typically why the plant is desired.  A couple months later (in the fall) this plant truly shines in the garden when bright clusters of lavender-pink fruit begin to develop.  Although American Beautyberry has a natural flowing growth habit, a light pruning can maintain a denser shrub, if desired.

This is a short list of plants that are underused in the landscape.  Next time you are visiting our nursery do not be afraid to ask about the different possible solutions for your landscape.  Your home is much different than your neighbor’s home so don’t plant the same thing, be different!  There are a thousand different ways to solve a problem in the landscape, so be creative and don’t be afraid to express yourself!

Happy Planting!
Bobby C.
Fairview Greenhouses & Garden Center