The Midwest is a great place to be a gardener: The climate and conditions are challenging, but terrific flowering shrubs flourish here. Hardy, reliable shrubs, blooming from spring through frost, are well-rooted in Midwestern gardening traditions.
Lilacs, hydrangeas, spirea, and azaleas -- each in its season -- light up Midwestern gardens in established neighborhoods to the delight and relief of many a young family that moves into a gracious old home. When adventurous new gardeners break ground on landscaping projects, fresh ideas and traditions come with them. New hybrids, a new commitment to native flowering shrubs, and interesting ways of using old-time favorites are gradually altering the Midwestern landscape.
Andrew Bell, curator of woody plants at the Chicago Botanic Garden, recommends a visit to a botanic garden to learn more about excellent shrubs that thrive in your area and to pick up ideas on how to grow them. Inspiration is to be found at every turn.
"If you like a shrub that will flower repeatedly through the summer, there has been an explosion in new varieties of butterfly bush (Buddleja selections)," Bell says. One of his favorites is Lo & Behold 'Purple Haze', which is covered with purple panicles of bloom -- and butterflies -- from summer through fall. "It's great in a mixed border" with flowers and shrubs, "and in perennial borders, and in pots," he says. The Lo & Behold series of compact butterfly bush plants, introduced by Proven Winners, grow to about 3 feet tall in a sunny spot. They may die back to the ground in harsh Chicago winters, but even if they do, they come back reliably from year to year. Zones 5-9 Learn more about butterfly bush.
Late-summer and fall-blooming panicle hydrangeas (H. paniculata) are among the most beautiful shrubs for Midwestern gardens. "This is one shrub that just does amazingly here," Bell says. Panicle hydrangeas, sometimes called PeeGee hydrangeas, are big shrubs, up to about 8 feet tall and wide; they produce large, cone-shape clusters of creamy white flowers that often fade to pink in mid- to late summer. The handsome flowers persist late into the fall, even after the hydrangeas have dropped their leaves. 'Big Ben', which was introduced by the director of the Chicago Botanic Garden, is one of the best, Bell says. 'Dharuma' is a little smaller, 4 feet tall at maturity. 'Limelight', a relatively new introduction, grows to 8 feet tall and has large, pale green flowers that turn white, then pink. They thrive in full sun to light shade. Zones 3-8 Learn more about hydrangeas.
Low-maintenance shrub roses are replacing needy hybrids in Midwestern gardens, Bell says, and for good reason. They are simply more versatile shrubs, he says. At the Chicago Botanic Garden, red Knock Out and yellow Sunny Knock Out are grown with ornamental grasses and in the dwarf conifer garden, where they bloom practically without stopping from spring through frost. There are seven different roses, including double blooms, in the Knock Out family. Bell also recommends Oso (such as Oso Happy Candy Oh! shown here) and Drift shrub roses. Shrub roses are known for their healthy green foliage, long flowering season, and hardiness. You don't have to be a specialist to take care of them: you can prune them with hedge shears. Zones 4-10 Learn more about shrub roses.
Gardeners at the Chicago Botanic Garden are in the midst of a witch hazel (Hamamelis selections) experiment, testing 36 cultivars for hardiness and performance. These autumn, winter, and early spring-blooming shrubs have wonderful, ribbonlike flowers that unfurl like miniature party streamers. The flowers are particularly beautiful in the autumn and winter light. Two very promising cultivars are hybrids of the common witch hazel (H. virginiana), which blooms in fall. 'Harvest Moon' has lemon-yellow flowers spaced close together; it grows to 15-18 feet tall. 'Little Suzie' has butter-yellow flowers; it is a dwarf witch hazel, growing to only 6 feet tall. Plant them on a woodland edge, or any place with dappled light. Zones 3-8 Learn more about witch hazel.
Rose of Sharon
New Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus) cultivars have also been attracting a lot of attention. "These are tough plants, and they bloom for a long time," Bell says. Rose of Sharon plants in the Chiffon series (one of Bell's favorites is Lavender Chiffon; Blue Chiffon is shown here) are extremely heat-tolerant; in Chicago, they come into bloom in the hottest part of the summer and bloom into September. Plant them in a sunny spot as stand-alone specimens, as part of a hedge, or at the back of a mixed border of shrubs and perennials. They grow 8-12 feet tall and tolerate hard pruning. Zones 5-8 Learn more about rose of Sharon.