Gardening with Native Plants: Shrubs for the New Year

Winterberry

Winterberry

A typical January begins with cold temperatures, biting wind, and still-short days—and only the distant promise of a new gardening season. In the garden, there are winter signs of life in cones, seeds, buds, tracks, animal scat, leaf-wrapped cocoons, gnawed nut shells, swaying catkins, and more. Indoor tasks are record-keeping, reporting, planning, ordering plants and seeds, checking tools, and looking forward to spring.

Preparation for the 2018 Friends of the Arboretum Native Plant Sale is well underway. Until February 14, you can order native trees, shrubs (including those described below), and flats of single species and/or garden mixes. The order form is available here and at the Arboretum Visitor Center. These advance orders will be available for pick-up on May 10. Then on May 12, a wide selection of native plants will be available at the one-day sale under the tent. Please save the date.

Native shrubs provide structure in your garden year-round. A few have special winter features—color, wildlife value, and interesting fruits. Others provide seasonal screening, habitat, or foliage color.

Winterberry (Ilex verticillata), a holly, holds small bright red fruits along dark stems. Unlike those of gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa) and red cedar (Juniperus virginiana), these fruits persist later into the winter, as birds feed on other species first. Site conditions for this shrub are partial shade with mesic to wet acidic soils.

Red-osier dogwood (Cornus sericea, synonym stolonifera) stands out against a winter landscape with vertical stalks and bright red bark. It forms a cluster of upright branches from underground stems. Dormant season renewal pruning stimulates new colorful growth.

Grey dogwood

Gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa) grows rapidly. Its white flowers, white fruits on red stems, and fall color recommend it. Wild turkeys and other birds feed on the fruits, which have a high fat content. It grows well in sun or shade, spreads away from the original planting, and can tolerate a wide range of soil types.

American hazelnut (Corylus americana) is an attractive shrub that can grow in light shade or sun. During winter, the catkin (pollen-bearing flower) buds are conspicuous. In late summer, hazelnuts ripen enclosed within bracts, and fall foliage color ranges from yellow to orange to red.

Juneberry (Amelanchier laevis) blooms early in the spring before the leaves emerge. The fruits (reminiscent of blueberries) are ripe about a month later. Cranes, wild turkeys, and songbirds feed on the fruits, and nesting birds also feed on insects that are drawn to the fruits.

When American plum (Prunus americana) shrubs are planted close together (6 ft. apart), they soon form a thicket. The sweetly-scented flowers appear in May, and 1-inch long fruits mature mid-summer. This shrub does not have true spines, but small lateral branches serve the same sharp role. It’s common to find songbird nests in these thickets once the leaves drop.

Ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius), a member of the rose family, holds clusters of small white flowers that bloom in May to June. In winter, it is distinctive with its multi-stem form and contrasting peeling bark. It is described as “FACW-,“ meaning it is a facultative (optional) wetland plant. This gives a clue as to where it will grow best. It tends to grow in sunny moist swales and calcareous habitats, but can also be found in drier sites.

Another member of the rose family, chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa), has attractive glossy foliage in both summer and fall. Its white clustered flowers develop into dark purple/black fruits. This shrub grows in mesic to wet soils, in full sun or light shade.

During January, plan your garden, order new plants, or consider a gardening class to learn more.

Happy New Year!

—Susan Carpenter, Arboretum native plant gardener

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