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Great native shrubs for the landscape

New Jersey Tea growing in the US botanic garden.
New Jersey Tea growing in the US botanic garden. US Botanic Garden

Native plants are a hot trend in gardens and in landscaping. They are ecologically sound choices and often require less care than other landscape and garden plants. The problem is that they are often hard to find as some are hard to propagate in nurseries or to hold for sale. Some species that might do well in the landscape are just not well known enough for people to seek them out. Researchers Julia Cartabiano and Jessica Lubell from the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture at the University of Connecticut have been searching for native shrubs that are good candidates for landscape material and that can be profitably grown by nurseries.

The shrubs Ceanothus americanus, (New Jersey Tea) Corylus cornuta, (Beaked Hazelnut) Lonicera canadensis, (American Fly Honeysuckle) and Viburnum acerifolium (Maple leaf viburnum) were the choices that the researchers reported on in the August 2013 issue of HortScience. The researchers thought all four species would be good landscape plants but that the Beaked Hazelnut and Mapleleaf viburnum would be the easiest to propagate.

Beaked Hazelnut

The Beaked Hazelnut is a rounded large shrub, 12-25 feet in height. The leaves are thick ovals with toothed edges and a hairy underside. The plant produces catkins in the fall that persist through winter and are pollinated in the spring. Each seed is a small nut enclosed in a tough husk with a point, the beak. The nuts are edible and were eaten by Native Americans but the husk is covered with fine hairs that can irritate the skin of those who are removing them to get the nut. There is also a hard shell around the nut which must be removed.

Squirrels and some birds like Jays eat the nuts. Native Americans used the stems of Beaked Hazelnut for basket weaving. The plant prefers sandy loam, well- drained soil and does not do well in clay soil or wet areas. It prefers full sun to light shade. It can be propagated by planting the nuts or rooting cuttings.

Mapleleaf viburnum

Mapleleaf viburnum is an attractive smaller shrub 3-6 feet in height. The leaves are lobed like a maple leaf with serrated edges. In spring small clusters of pretty white flowers turn into attractive red or purple berries that can persist through winter if not eaten. Birds eat the berries as well as some small animals. The flowers attract butterflies and the plant is a larval host to the Spring Azure butterfly.

The Mapleleaf viburnum berries are not considered edible for humans but Native Americans used the berries to make several medicinal concoctions for cramps and colic and as a diuretic. The plant is useful in the landscape because it will tolerate dry shade but it does best in well drained but moist soil in partial shade. It does not propagate well from seed; it is usually started from rhizomes as it does sucker, or by rooting cuttings.

Fly Honeysuckle

Fly Honeysuckle is one of our native honeysuckles and is not considered invasive. It forms a slowly spreading bush up to about 8 feet tall with attractive leaves. In late April it has sweet smelling yellow-white flowers that become reddish fruits in late summer. The fruits are eagerly sought by robins and cardinals.

Fly honeysuckle is tolerant of most soil and moisture conditions and will grow in full sun to partial shade. It is propagated by seed or cuttings quite easily although plants may be a little slow to establish.

New Jersey Tea

New Jersey Tea may be the best known of these four native shrubs and does appear for sale in native plant catalogs and herbal catalogs. It has a long history of ethno-botanical uses in North America. Other common names are red root, mountain sweet and wild snowball. It is a small wiry stemmed shrub to about 3 feet tall. It has long oval leaves that smell like wintergreen when crushed and that have white hairs on the back. Stems are green when young but turn woody with age. The roots are reddish in color.

New Jersey Tea flowers are fragrant clusters of tiny white flowers that attract a lot of bees and butterflies. They bloom for as long as a month in early summer. The plant is the larval host for the butterflies Spring Azure, Summer Azure, Mottled Duskywing and the Dreamy Duskywing. The flowers turn into papery 3 lobed capsules with hard brown seeds inside. The seeds are eaten by many birds including wild turkeys and grouse. Beware- deer love to browse on this plant and will seek it out.

New Jersey tea is named because early settlers used its dry leaves as a tea substitute. It has no caffeine but may give an energy boost. Native Americans had several medicinal uses for the plant. It was used for bowel problems and the roots were eaten to give people energy on long trips. It lowers blood pressure and the roots were used to stop bleeding- they have blood clotting properties. The roots are also used to make a red dye.

New Jersey Tea likes well drained soil and will survive droughty conditions. It prefers full sun. It is slow growing but will gradually spread by suckering. It can be propagated by seed or cuttings but the biggest problem is protecting it from deer and rabbits which are unusually fond of the plant (maybe that energy thing again?). In the garden it is also prone to powdery mildew, especially in irrigated conditions. This is a plant however, with some selective breeding, which could produce several nice garden varieties. In fact Proven Winners ( has introduced Marie Bleu – a hybrid Ceanothus with lilac colored flowers and red seed heads that is very attractive.

If you want native shrubs to attract wildlife and pollinators all of the four shrubs above could be good choices if you have the conditions they prefer. These shrubs are also fairly attractive low maintenance landscape shrubs. To find native shrubs for sale try contacting your local conservation district. They often have native plant sales. Contact native plant nurseries and ask for the plants by name. If enough people ask about them the nursery may carry the plants in the future. You can also try the nurseries listed below.

Here are some additional articles you may want to read.

Edible landscape plants that provide fall color

How to grow jewelweed in the garden

Tips on choosing landscape shrubs

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