The panorama of the natural world is sublime, but becomes so much more meaningful for us when we interact with it. In the garden, we interact more readily with plants when they show interesting characteristics that attract our attention. Green makes a good backdrop for other plants, but who really takes time to study a backdrop? Thus, many gardeners are looking for shrubs that provide much more interest than those of old. We look for aspects that attract our admiration in all seasons if possible. We want beautiful spring flowers, colorful foliage, fruit formation, and interesting bark in winter. So, here are a few suggestions of shrubs and small trees that provide at least three and sometimes four seasons of beauty. They may provide a backdrop to perennials in your garden but will never be downgraded to unnoticeable. In fact, when blooming some of these plants will outshine everything else!
1) Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis) This small tree has usually been hardy only to zone 6 but more recent cultivars are gaining in hardiness and can now survive into zone 5. Gorgeous bright magenta pea like flowers cover the tree in spring before the leaves which are big and heart shaped. Cultivars such as “Aurea” have golden leaves that gradually darken to chartreuse but hold their brightness throughout the summer heat. They turn golden again in fall and can look lovely alongside red autumn dogwoods. In winter, as redbud ages it will develop a ridged bark with coral patches that stand out against white snow. This is a deservedly popular small tree with four seasons of beauty for moist well drained soil in sun. It grows about 15 feet tall and will not tolerate drought so choose your site carefully or be prepared to water when needed.
2) Eastern Ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius) If you prefer something much hardier and smaller, then the ninebarks might be for you. My favorite of the newer cultivars is “Dart’s Gold”. It is a tough reliable shrub growing 5 feet tall and wide. It is drought tolerant and hardy to Zone 2. It produces showy golden leaves in early spring with small white flowers followed by reliable (self pollinated) reddish fruit that stand out against the light foliage. Golden in autumn, the leaves fall to reveal bark that peels in strips exposing reddish brown inner bark in winter. This is a tough four season plant, one of the best. Another cultivar, “Amber Jubilee” is similar but has red leaves in spring.
3) Variegated Dogwood ( Cornus alba ) The cultivar “Elegantissima” is one of the best with white and green variegated leaves and fluffy white umbels in spring. It looks gorgeous with an evergreen backdrop behind and morning sun to illuminate it. It is very hardy to zone 2 and will be brightest in full or near full sun. It needs moist soil but well drained and good loam, like all the dogwoods, and pairs well with hydrangeas. In autumn, its leaves turn a most engaging rosy pink color and winter reveals those quintessential bright red stems that glow in winter sun set against snow and pale blue skies.
4) Viburnum There are several species of viburnum to choose from and all are excellent for providing three seasons of interest in your garden. Viburnum x carlesii, the Korean Spice viburnum, is a favorite for its pink buds followed by white balled flowers and red berries. They all turn a gorgeous mix of bronze burgundy and red in autumn. Not a lot of winter interest here unless some berries remain on the bush but this is unlikely as the birds love them. However the bark is a nice tan color that is not offensive and these large shrubs more than make up for the lack of winter show by being stunning the rest of the year. Berry formation depends on cross pollination, so more than one is needed. If space is limited try v. carlesii “Compactum” and v. carlesii “Spice Girl” for cross pollination that uses less space. If you have the room v. dilatatum “Cardinal Candy” and “Tandoori Orange” will work together and produce red and orange berries respectively for an outstanding autumn show.
5) Elder (Sambucus) Again, flowers, colorful foliage and berries provide three seasons of interest in a shrub that grows quickly in moist conditions and sun. Sambucus nigra “Black Lace” is hardy in zones 4 to 7 and has lovely pink flowers against striking black purple highly serrated foliage. This is a great substitute for Japanese maple for those of us who cannot grow them. This plant provides wonderful contrast against the greens and chartreuse of other shrubs in your garden or against a light colored house. If you want an elder that is chartreuse look no further than Sambucus racemosa “Lemony Lace”. Chartreuse to yellow foliage and large white flowers with red berries make this shrub a three season stand out.
There are of course several more cultivars in each species that you can research for more options as you spend these days getting ready for the upcoming growing season. May it be one of vitality and splendor!
authored by Tanya Crowell