Shrubs are sometimes described as small trees, and in fact, many trees can take the form of shrubs if they are pruned and trained correctly. Shrubs are typically bushy style plants, some of which can be pruned into ornamental designs, while others do better when left to their own natural shapes.
Shrubs can be categorized into two essential groups; evergreen and deciduous. Evergreen shrubs hold onto their leaves all year round, providing continual interest through every season, while deciduous shrubs lose their foliage in fall or winter. However, for ease of helping you to choose a shrub, we have created further shrub categories, including the best shrubs for shaded areas, the best shrubs for making hedges, and the best flowering shrubs.
The benefit of evergreens is obvious; you are provided with year-round interest in your garden, improving the view out of your window and preventing that dead and abandoned look that some gardens can have during the colder months. However, evergreens offer more benefits than just visual interest.
If you have used shrubs to create hedges or ‘living fences’ around your property, then depending on the type of shrub you have used, you may find your property is suddenly exposed in the winter. If privacy is important to you, then you’ll need to ensure any hedges are formed from evergreen shrubs so that they are full all year round.
Evergreen shrubs can also brighten up the garden during a time of year when color can be lacking. If you opt for shrubs with variegated foliage, then you can enjoy color throughout every season. Evergreen shrubs also add structure to your garden, which can look flat and vacant in the winter if you only have deciduous shrubs.
Popular evergreen shrubs include the following.
Flaky Juniper ‘Blue Star’ (Juniperus Squamata)
Also known as Himalayan juniper, this bush produces bright blue-gray needle-like foliage. It forms a compact shrub with dense growth, which does best in sunny locations and often has a pleasant scent.
This juniper species is native to China and the Himalayas, though it grows well throughout USDA hardiness zones 4 to 8. It typically grows to form a mound shape, though it also works well as a dense groundcover. It is slow-growing and tolerates a wide variety of soils, making it popular in rock gardens.
This particular type of juniper has won the prestigious Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society for its coveted characteristics.
Boxwood (Buxus Sempervirens)
Also known as the common box plant, this shrub can grow anywhere from 3 to 30 feet in height. It has a dense growth habit with small oval dark green leaves in a glossy finish. It is particularly popular for use in topiary or hedging because it can be trimmed very closely into almost any shape you desire. Boxwood should be grown in full sun to partial shade, and likes its soil to be kept moist but well-draining.
Japanese Laurel (Aucuba Japonica)
This is a slow-growing and versatile shrub that will only reach a height of under 6 feet after 10 years of unpruned growth. It is suitable to grow almost anywhere in a garden, as it thrives in most soil types and will grow in shade or sun. It has green leaves spotted with gold splashes, though these are at their most vibrant when the plant is grown in full sun. Japanese laurel can be pruned into a hedge, trimmed into a neat bush shape, or left to grow naturally.
This plant grows easily, so much so that it is considered invasive in much of the eastern US. It thrives in full sun to part shade and a wide range of soils so long as they are well-draining. The plant can be grown as a low hedge, or will happily climb up a wall or fence if it has support.
The foliage of this plant is dark green with creamy colored margins, which can take on a pink hue in winter, bringing welcome color to the garden. Summer brings with it small off white flowers, but the wintercreeper is not grown for its blooms.
This plant is a recipient of the Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society and is hardy through USDA growing zones 5 to 9.
Japanese Skimmias (Skimmia Japonica)
If you’re looking for an evergreen shrub that provides more than just year-round foliage, this is the one for you. It is a stunning plant with green leathery leaves that provide the perfect backdrop to large clusters of white or pink fragrant flowers in spring.
The female plants then develop bunches of striking red glossy berries that hang around throughout winter. The male plants typically bear more showy flowers than the female, but they do not benefit from the stunning ornamental berries.
This shrub loves the shade and grows slowly to a maximum height of 4 feet with a mounding habit.
Bay Laurel (Laurus Nobilis)
Bay laurel can be grown as a shrub or bush, depending on how you prune it. It can grow anywhere from 12 feet to 40 feet in height and relies on warm climates to survive. It can be grown outdoors in USDA hardiness zones 8 through 11, enjoying full sun and partial shade.
The plant is cultivated for its green leathery oval-shaped leaves, which are highly aromatic and are widely used in cooking. Small yellow flowers appear in spring, which are later replaced by shiny black purple berries on female plants.
It may be easy to fall into the trap of only opting for evergreen shrubs in your garden, as the empty branches of deciduous shrubs can look unappealing when they have lost their foliage. However, deciduous shrubs have a lot to offer.
Their foliage tends to change color throughout the different seasons, bringing an ever-changing look to your garden, unlike evergreens which remain the same all year round. Deciduous shrubs help to bring about a feel of changing seasons, with foliage often turning shades of orange and red as the weather starts to get colder, signaling the beginning of fall. The arrival of fresh growth in spring is also something to look forward to with deciduous shrubs.
Popular deciduous shrubs include the following.
Japanese Spirea (Spiraea Japonica)
This sun-loving shrub is known for its spectacular foliage in a variety of changing colors throughout the year. Many cultivars exist, but generally, you can expect leaves which start out in shades of orange, developing to yellow or green in the summer, and then progressing to red in the fall. The plant also produces pretty pink flowers in spring and summer, ensuring this plant has plenty to offer.
It has a compact form, growing to maximum heights of 3 or 4 feet. This makes it ideal for creating low borders and hedges, or for use in container gardening.
Smooth Hydrangea (Hydrangea Arborescens)
This plant is native to eastern states in the US and can endure very cold temperatures. It is hardy through USDA zones 3 to 9, and is very low-maintenance, making it a popular plant in a range of climates.
The show-stopping flowers of the smooth Hydrangea are its main attraction, blooming in large spherical clusters from the beginning of summer right through fall. The flowers start out lime green before developing into a luscious cream color. The foliage of the plant also offers some interest, with deep green leaves that transform to yellow in the fall.
Bush Honeysuckle (Diervilla Lonicera)
This shrub is not true honeysuckle, though it is commonly known as bush honeysuckle because it bears similar-looking yellow flowers which bloom through spring and summer and shiny green leaves, which sometimes take on a red color in fall.
It is appropriate for growing throughout USDA hardiness zones 3 to 10 and prefers full sun to partial shade. It has a maximum mature height of around 3 or 4 feet and tends to spread wider than it is tall.
Chokeberry (Aronia Arbutifolia ‘Brilliantissima’)
This slow-growing shrub is noted for its glossy red berries, which grow in thick clusters, ripening in late summer but remaining along the branches right up to winter. The berries are a delight to look at, but, though they are edible, they taste so bitter they are said to cause choking- hence the common name of chokeberry. The ‘Brilliantissima’ cultivar is much like the common chokeberry, but with larger berries, and brighter red fall foliage.
Japanese Barberry (Berberis Thunbergii)
Originating from Japan, this shrub has a spiny look with a compact habit. It is slow-growing, taking between 10 and 20 years to reach its maximum height of around 4 feet. The green leaves are around an inch long, turning red or orange in fall. The plant bears dainty orange or yellow flowers, followed by glossy red fruits later in the year.
Red Twig Dogwood (Cornus Sericea)
This plant, unlike most other deciduous shrubs, has lots to offer all year round. In the summer, it shines with showy foliage, scented blooms, and attractive berries, but once all of the leaves have fallen in the winter, the plant is left with bright red stems which contrast against the dull look of the season.
Many people grow this plant purely for its stunning upright flaming twigs, which are a sight to behold, especially against a backdrop of frost or snow.
Virginia Witch Hazel (Hamamelis Virginiana)
This plant is native to North America and is noted for its colorful display throughout the fall. It features broad leaves that start of pale green but develop to a deeper shade, which then turns to a golden shade in the fall.
The best attribute of this shrub, however, is the yellow flowers which bloom in fall and often persist through much of the winter. The flowers bloom all along the twig-like branches, with unusual twisted petals.
The shrub is considered low-maintenance, and is hardy through USDA zones 3 to 8.
Best Shrubs for Hedging
If you find the look of walls or fences too harsh but enjoy having a defined border around your property, then a hedge could give you what you’re looking for. Hedges can also offer good privacy and even security if you use shrubs with prickly leaves or thorns.
Living hedges, when grown tall enough, will also provide shade and protection from the wind for other plants growing nearby. Shrubs are the best plants to use for hedging as many can grow tall and spread wide, responding well to pruning. Shrubs with habits of growing naturally dense are ideal for creating hedges.
Some of the best shrubs to use in hedging are the following.
English Holly (Ilex Aquifolium)
English holly makes an excellent privacy hedge as it has a dense growth habit with the ability to grow up to 15 feet tall and 8 feet wide. As well as forming a sizeable hedge, the prickly foliage will also deter anyone from trying to make their way through it. The glossy leaves of this plant are attractive, with the addition of small white flowers in the spring. Glossy red berries will follow on female plants that have been pollinated.
Yew Bushes (Taxus)
This classic hedge shrub has deep green needle-like foliage, with red berries. It grows slowly, so it isn’t ideal for anyone in a hurry to create a hedge, but if you have the patience, it will grow tall enough to work as an effective screen. One of the great things about this shrub is that it tolerates a wide variety of lighting conditions, making it suitable for growth in anywhere from full sun to shade in USDA hardiness zones 2 to 10.
These shrubs are ideal for creating privacy screens as they have such a dense growth habit, though you will need to research which variety will be best for your garden as some can grow in excess of 60 feet. They grow happily in full to partial sun and are hardy through USDA zones 2 to 7.
Laurel (Prunus Laurocerasus)
This evergreen shrub grows at a medium rate and is commonly known as cherry laurel or English laurel. It can grow up to 18 feet tall and 30 feet wide, making it ideal for producing large hedging around a property. It tolerates strong winds, and can grow in any light conditions, including full shade, and also thrives in almost any type of soil. It produces white flowers from April through to June and is popular among wildlife.
Canadian Hemlock (Tsuga Canadensis)
This needle-leaf shrub works well in hedging as its foliage grows to be very thick and dense, which is great if you’re looking for privacy. It thrives in partial to full shade and requires moist soil. It is not tolerant of drought and can be easily scorched by the sunlight in high temperatures, so it is best used in protected conditions.
Best Shrubs for Shade
If you have a dark corner of your garden that needs brightening up, then a shade-loving shrub could be the answer. Many shrubs are low-maintenance and thrive in shaded conditions, with some even bearing flowers to bring color to otherwise dull spaces in your garden.
Some of the best shrubs for planting in the shade are the following.
Andromeda (Pieris Japonica)
This flowering evergreen shrub produces white blooms with an intense scent. The fragrance is loved by some but loathed by others. It is probably best to test the scent out before planting this in your garden and potentially being overwhelmed with a smell you find unappealing. It grows well in partial shade, though it will bloom less abundantly in shady conditions.
California Sweetshrub (Calycanthus Occidentalis)
This easy-care shrub produces unusual spindly flowers in a deep burgundy shade, with a scent that is said to be reminiscent of red wine. It is very versatile as it will grow in any lighting conditions, from full sun to full shade.
It is commonly used to control eroding riverbanks, as well as a deterrent in areas that have problems with deer. It grows well in USDA hardiness zones 6 to 9 and relies on consistently moist soil to thrive. It will not tolerate periods or drought.
Coast Leucothoe (Leucothoe Axillaris)
This evergreen shrub produces small bell-shaped white flowers that grow in hanging clusters along the length of the stems. It is native to the United States and is commonly used to create hedges or in topiary. It is hardy through USDA zones 6 to 9 and thrives in full or partial shade.
Best Flowering Shrubs
Shrubs that produce flowers offer the best of both worlds, a bushy plant that can fill a good space in your garden with attractive foliage and beautiful blooms. If you’re specifically looking for shrubs with showstopping flowers, these are some you might like to consider.
Hydrangea (Hydrangea Paniculata)
This flowering shrub, native to China and Japan, is incredibly popular, and it’s not hard to see why. It is low-maintenance, cold hardy, and produces an abundance of showstopping flowers that bloom reliably in spring and can persist right through to winter. The small flowers start out the cream, turning to pale pink as the weather gets cooler. They appear in large full clusters, and bloom best when grown in full sun to partial shade conditions.
Cinquefoil (Potentilla Fruticosa)
This deciduous shrub produces a mass of bright white flowers with yellow centers, which bloom in spring and last right through to the first frost. The abundance of blooms is so intense that it looks as though the entire shrub is getting overtaken by flowers.
The plant itself grows to around 3 feet in height with a similar spread, making a good low border around a garden or colorful hedge. It is a hardy plant, tolerant of both drought and low temperatures.
Butterfly Bush (Buddleia Davidii)
This large shrub offers up clusters of small purple flowers on long spikes, which can measure up to 10 inches in length. They usually appear in midsummer and will persist until the first frost. The deciduous plant also features lance-shaped green foliage and gently arching stems. It is a low-maintenance plant that grows easily in full sun in a range of soils. It is drought-tolerant but will not survive in soggy soil.
Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus Syriacus)
This easy-care shrub has a loose habit, which makes it suited for growing on the back row of borders or as an informal hedge or privacy screen. The large exotic blooms are the star of this plant, flowering from the middle of summer to fall. The blossoms come in shades of blue, white, pink, and red, and resemble the shape of a wide vase. It will grow in full sun to partial shade and is hardy in USDA growing zones 5 to 8.
Camellia (Camellia Japonica)
This evergreen shrub is native to Japan, China, and Korea, growing to a maximum height of around 30 feet. It produces glossy, leathery foliage in dark green, which is oval in shape and reaches a point at the tips.
The leaves typically measure just under 4 inches in length. The plant also bears individual flowers at the end of branches in spring. They can be pink or white in color and have a very simple, wholesome look to them.
Koreanspice Viburnum (Viburnum Carlesii)
This medium-sized shrub also goes by the name of arrowwood. It has a bushy habit and is renowned for its clusters of small white or pink flowers that resemble feathery snowballs. The flowers are borne at the end of stems, held high above the foliage of the plant.
The flowers give way to red berries, which develop to black when they ripen at the end of summer. The foliage of this plant also offers lots of interest through the seasons, with broad green leaves, which are pale green in summer and burgundy in fall.