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The Best Ornamental Shrubs

snowball tree image by Aleksey Trefilov from

Ornamental shrubs provide a welcome landscape feature for foundation plantings, as a transition from dark woodlands or hedges to the perennial beds, or as accent or specimen plantings near pathways or yard lights. The best ornamental shrubs are adaptable to a wide range of growing conditions and provide aesthetic interest throughout much of the year.

Cranberry Bush

The European cranberry bush (Viburnum opulus) and its American relative (Viburnum trilobum) are hardy shrubs that grow 8 to 10 feet high and spread 4 to 6 feet in diameter. Writing in Cornell University's classic 1950 guide to Shrubs for Landscape Plantings in New York State, Robert Mower notes that the cranberry bushes have attractive white flowers in June, and then develop bright red fruits that last all winter, thus providing landscape interest for much of the year. Numerous other viburnum varieties--each a relative of the traditional cranberry bush--are available, with cultural requirements that span every growing environment and landscape need in the United States. The University of Florida IFAS Extension suggests sweet viburnum (Viburnum odoratissimum) for warmer climates, while the University of Illinois suggests the viburnums "Winterthur" and "Erie" for the best fall foliage and winter berries in cold northern climes.

Rugosa Roses

Rugosa roses are rambling, single-petaled wild rose varieties with dark green glossy leaves and white, pink or rose-colored blooms that bloom over several weeks in early summer. The shrubs grow to 5 or 6 feet high, and can be left to spread over a trellis or fence, sprawl unsupported, or be trimmed to tamer landscaping shapes. Robert Mower recommends planting rugosa roses, particularly for seashore growing, as they tolerate harsh growing conditions. This is why they are commonly used in highway dividers and parking lot plantings. The University of Illinois Extension also recommends rugosa roses--particularly the named cultivars Frau Dagmar Hastrup, Jens Munk and Rubra--for winter landscape interest, as they bear large red rose hips in profusion after blooming.


Hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla) is recommended by the University of Florida IFAS Extension for its tolerance of Florida's hot growing seasons and sandy soils, but its cousin the snowball bush (Hydrangea arborescens "Grandiflora") is also recommended by Robert Mower for its very effective landscape use in the colder reaches of New York State. The hydrangea is an adaptable landscape shrub, with cultivars that thrive in most locations in the United States. The plants have rounded, spreading growing habits and reach 3 to 6 feet in height. One advantage of the hydrangea is that it blooms later than most spring-flowering shrubs, with the macrophylla variety blooming in late spring to early summer, and the snowball bush types blooming in early July when garden blooms are scarce. Blossom shades vary from white to pink to blue, depending on soil pH. Hydrangeas also tolerate a wide range of light conditions.

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