Top 10 Native Shrubs
Planting native plants is incredibly important for the ecosystem and is the easiest way to help save the bees, feed the birds, and overall help to combat habitat loss! You can read more about the importance of native plants and why we should be concerned about their success in the article titled "Why Native Plants?" We have already discussed some of the best options for native perennials and native trees. Including shrubs will help you to make a cohesive, environmentally sound landscape that is both beautiful and functional. Choosing which shrubs will look the best and also thrive in your landscape can be equally as intimidating as choosing a tree. Some plants on this list straddle the line between tree and shrub, either in size or growth habit. Knowing where these plants naturally grow in the wild will help to know which type of shrub will thrive the most in your conditions, whether it is a rain garden or dry hill.
Always be sure to double check the native range of plants before you install them into your landscape, only to later find out that you are outside of their native range. This list will focus on the Pittsburgh area and the northeast, though many of these plants have an extensive range. If the specific species does not extend its range into your region, there is a high chance that there is a closely related species in the same genus that is!
The following list is in no particular order and all of the shrubs have their own pros and cons. Let's begin with a shrub that is a wonderful substitution for the highly invasive, noxious weed that is now illegal to sell in much of the country, the Bradford pear.
1. Allegheny Serviceberry Amelanchier laevis
Size: 15-25' tall and wide
Sun: 4-6+ hours
Wildlife: pollinators, bees, butterflies, birds, small mammals
The Allegheny service berry has a long list of common names, including juneberry, shadbush, saskatoon, sarvisberry, shadblow, shadwood, sugar plum, and more! The genus Amelanchier has about 20 species within it. This shrub is one that straddles the line between tree and shrub, with some sources classifying it one way, while others the opposite. This is a large, multi-stemmed shrub often found in wooded areas growing as part of the understory or in meadows. Serviceberries have four seasons of interest. Beautiful, white flowers bloom in spring, typically around April. These flowers are pollinated by various species of bees and exude a wonderful aroma during the life of the blossoms.
Come early summer, purple berries that resemble blueberries will ripen. These berries are attractive to birds and humans alike. They are edible and have been used as a food source for hundreds of years. These days, they are often made into jams and jellies to be enjoyed all year long. Though, remember if you choose to plant this shrub in your landscape that you are not the only one who likes to rely on these berries and to leave some for the birds! Once fall rolls around, the leaves will turn wonderful shades of orange and red that rival the beauty of some other native plants.
This wonderful shrub is a hose plant to several species of butterflies, including the beautiful red-spotted purple and viceroy butterflies. Viceroy butterflies are often mistaken for monarch butterflies and red-spotted purple butterflies have a wonderful display of blue on their wings so rarely found in nature! Many different pollinators will feed on the flowers in springtime including butterflies and bees. The fruits are attractive to all, small and large mammals alike, as well as a variety of birds, some of which include songbirds and ruffed grouse.
2. Buttonbush Cephalanthus occidentalus
Size: 5-12' tall, 4-8' wide
Sun: 4-6+ hours
Wildlife: pollinators, waterfowl, birds, hummingbirds butterflies, bees
This is a wonderful shrub for rain gardens or other wet areas of the landscape. While they tolerate moderate soils, these plants do best in moderate to wet soils along streambanks, rivers, and lakes, even tolerating standing water up to 3 feet deep. Planting this species in an area with occasional flooding will help to prevent erosion. The glossy, dark green leaves will turn anywhere from yellow to orange in the fall. Beginning in June, fragrant clusters of white, tubular flowers begin to bloom. The flowers are arranged in nearly perfect spheres with long pistils that give them an almost pin cushion appearance. Flower production is poor in shade or in dry soils. After the flowers have finished their display, they will produce showy, red seed pods that are enjoyed by a variety of wildlife. Seed heads usually persist through winter.
The flowers this shrub produces is the easiest area to see the impact this shrub has on wildlife. It is a very important source of food for many species of wetland-dwelling animals and pollinators. The flowers attract hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies, including the eastern tiger swallowtail. Other pollinators frequently visit these shrubs, as well. The titan and hydrangea sphinx moths are both frequently found visiting these shrubs. The seed heads are enjoyed by waterfowl, shorebirds, and songbirds. The entire shrub is considered to be moderately deer resistant.
3. Witch Hazel Hamamelis virginiana
Size: 15-20' tall and wide
Sun: 4-6+ hours
Wildlife: pollinators, birds, mammals
This is a fall and winter blooming shrub with beautifully fragrant flowers! Often this plant will flower after the leaves have fallen off for the season, making them visible without the obstruction of leaves. The otherwise lush, green leaves turn a brilliant gold in fall, similar to that of the flowers. They can be found growing wild along woodland margins and stream banks with medium or slightly wet soils. This shrub is intolerant of drought, but tolerates clay soils incredibly well. They are a wonderful addition to any landscape with a wetter area looking for that elusive winter interest.
Fall blooming plants are invaluable to pollinators that are gearing up for winter, whether they make a big migration or hunker down to wait out the cold. These flowers are pollinated by noctuid moths primarily. The fruits are eaten by small mammals and birds, including turkeys. Deer may browse the foliage, but the shrub tolerates deer damage well.
4. Winterberry Ilex verticillata
Size: 3-10 feet tall and wide
Sun: 2-6+ hours
Wildlife: birds, pollinators, specialized bees, butterflies, pollinators
This is a slow-growing, deciduous holly that puts on a wonderful display for winter. Living up to its common name, this shrub bears brilliant red berries in winter which hold up typically until the robins come back from their winter migration. Winterberry holly, like other holly are dioecious, meaning there are male and female plants. Male plants will never produce fruit and female plants will not produce fruit without a male plant nearby to pollinate them. This doesn't mean the male shrub needs to be right up against the females, but close enough for pollinators to travel from the male plant to the female. If your neighbor has the same species of winterberry, and they have a male, you could get away with not having a male shrub and still have your female shrubs produce fruit. Winterberries are tolerant of medium to poorly drained soils. You will find this plant growing wild in areas such as water edges like lakes and swamps and wetland margins. These plants also thrive in mesic soils that most of us have in our landscapes and is tolerant of salt and clay soils. The flowers are insignificant but a favorite among many pollinators. You may not notice your hollies are blooming until you see pollinators buzzing around! Flowers emerge in spring.
Winterberry are pollinated by several species of pollinators, including one species of specialized bee Colletes banksi. An amazing 48 species of birds feed on the berries including robins and cedar waxwings. Rabbits and deer will use the foliage as a food source, however this species can tolerate this damage well. Some small mammals will also eat the berries.
5. American Beautyberry Callicarpa americana
Size: 3-6 feet tall and wide
Sun: 4-9+ hours
Wildlife: songbirds, mammals
It may be hard to believe, but this is a member of the mint family! Like others in the mint family, this shrub is tolerant of most soil conditions when provided adequate drainage. Once established, this plant is drought tolerant. In the wild, you may see these plants growing in areas such as meadows, thickets, and along the margins of bodies of water. The flowers are insignificant and bloom in spring and summer. They give way to clusters of beautiful purple berries come fall that occasionally hold into winter. The berries are showy and attractive to many forms of wildlife. The lush green leaves turn to an alluring yellow that compliments the purple berries remarkably well. These shrubs will often continue their berry display after the leaves have been shed for fall.
Many species of songbirds will enjoy the berries including eastern tahoe, and the purple finch. Foxes, armadillos, raccoons, opossums, squirrel and deer are among the many mammals that feed on the fruits. Deer will also nibble on the spring and summer leaves before the fruit arrives.
6. Red Osier Dogwood Cornus sericea
Size: 6-9 feet tall 7-10 feet wide
Sun: 4-6+ hours
Wildlife: pollinators, specialized bees, birds, small mammals
Cornus sericea also goes by another name, the red twigged dogwood. This name is well earned! In winter, when the leaves have fallen off, the young branches will display a bundle of bright red young twigs. While pruning is not necessary to maintain the health of the plant, many choose to remove about one quarter of the plant in spring to maintain the young sprig color. Not only does this dogwood have lovely winter interest, the flowers in early summer are followed by showy white berries in fall. This shrub is often found in riparian areas, wetland margins, and overall wetter soils, though it can tolerate mesic soils well.
Dogwoods support several specialized bees. The flowers support those bees, as well as other pollinators, such as non-specialized bees and butterflies. The berries are a food source for birds and small mammals. The growth habit of the shrubs also provide nesting sites for those same birds and small mammals. Red twigged dogwoods are larval host plants for several butterflies, including the spring azure butterfly.
7. Pasture Rose Rosa carolina
Size: 1-3 feet tall, 4-10 feet wide
Sun: 6+ hours
Wildlife: pollinators, birds, caterpillars, green metialic bees
While we have some highly invasive rose species in the United States, like the multiflora rose, there are also some native roses! The native roses do not have the double petals many of the cultivated roses have, making it much easier for the pollinators to get to the nectar and the pollen. Pennsylvania has 5 native rose species, one of which is the pasture rose or Rosa carolina. This rose has lovely pink flowers that are infrequently white and grow to about 2.5 inches across. You will often find this rose growing in average to wet meadows, fields, and disturbed habitats. This species of rose is resistant to the rose rosette virus when planted in full sun. This is a wonderful option for a hedgerow. Pasture roses spread with suckers, which can make them a poor choice for smaller gardens
The growth habit of this plant provides wonderful cover for birds and other small animals year round. Many pollinators will visit these flowers including bumblebees, green metialic bees, hover flies, and beetles. Many species of hoverfly larvae act as beneficial bugs, eating the plant pests, like aphids. Moth caterpillars will feed on the foliage. Birds stop by to snack on the seeds. Leaves and stems are lightly browsed by white tailed deer and elk. The thorns help to keep damage minimal.
8. Bladdernut Staphylea trifolia
Size: 10-15 feet tall, 10-20 feet wide
Sun: 2-4 hours
Wildlife: pollinators, mammals
This large shrub is often found growing wild as an understory plant in woodlands, making it well adapted to the shady areas of your landscape, especially under trees. Bladdernuts can also be found growing along streambanks and in floodplains. They often form thickets when in undisturbed habitats. Interesting flowers appear in early spring, followed by the interesting fruit that gives this plant its name in the fall. The bladdernut will have an inflated, papery seed capsules that mature in summer. These showy fruits often persist through winter, when they dry to a brown color. This shrub is tolerant of a wide range of soils and soil conditions.
The flowers often emerge before the leaves do in early spring. This is a crucial time for pollinators who are just beginning to wake from their winter slumber! You will often see different bees, hoverflies, butterflies, and other pollinators visiting this plant to get a sip of their nectar and a bite of their pollen. Small mammals also browse the foliage of this shrub.
9. Elderberry Sambucus canadensis
Size: 5-12 feet tall and wide
Sun: 4-6+ hours
Wildlife: pollinators, birds, mammals
Sambucus canadensis, the American black elderberry, can tolerate a wide range of soils but does best in moist, well drained humusy soils. White flowers appear in summer that have a slight citrus aroma. Shortly after, the dark berries will follow. Fruits of this species are sometimes used to make elderberry wine, jams, jellies, and more. If you are choosing to do this for yourself, as well, remember to leave some of the berries for the wildlife in order to support the native wildlife and allow the animals who stop to snack to spread the seeds and produce more shrubs! The leaves turn golden in the fall.
Countless pollinators will visit the summer blooms. The berries are enjoyed by a large variety of animals, such as birds, mammals, even turtles! The growth habit of this plant allows for various nesting sites for a variety of birds and small mammals. The foliage of this plant is toxic and rarely browsed.
10. Meadowsweet Spiraea alba
Size: 3-4 feet tall and wide
Sun: 4-6+ hours
Wildlife: Pollinators, butterfly host plant
You may be familiar with other spirea that are frequently used in landscaping. Various forms and species of Japanese spirea dominate the nursery aisles, which do not support our native pollinators. Spiraea alba and Spiraea tomentosa are both wonderful native alternatives to the Japanese spirea. You can find these plants growing naturally in meadows and fields, bogs, swamps, wet stream banks, and along bodies of water. This would be a wonderful addition to a rain garden! The flowers bloom in summertime. The leaves, while normally a rich green, turn a wonderful yellow, occasionally red in the fall.
This plant's flower can easily be found abuzz with pollinators of all sorts! This is a larval hose plant for the spring azure butterfly.
Landscapes often don't look quite finished without a few shrubs here and there. The ones found above will help your landscape to look finished and beautiful, yet also help to feed the wildlife. While it may seem like adding a few native plants to your landscape isn't doing much at all to help the ecosystem, if everyone in a neighborhood did so, there would be a significant amount of habitat restored. The more native plants you have in your landscape, the more you are helping the planet to recover and helping to restore the ecosystem. Together, we can make a change!
American bladdernut. The Morton Arboretum. (2021, December 2). https://mortonarb.org/plant-and-protect/trees-and-plants/american-bladdernut/
Buttonbush: The native, moisture-loving shrub. Penn State Extension. (n.d.). https://extension.psu.edu/buttonbush-the-native-moisture-loving-shrub
Callicarpa americana. Callicarpa americana (American Beautyberry, American Mulberry, Beautyberry, French Mulberry, Sour-bush) | North Carolina Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox. (n.d.). https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/callicarpa-americana/
Hamamelis virginiana. Hamamelis virginiana (Common Witchhazel, Common Witch Hazel, Southern Witch Hazel, Witch Hazel, Witch-Hazel) | North Carolina Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox. (n.d.). https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/hamamelis-virginiana/
Ilex verticillata - common winterberry. Native Plant Trust: Go Botany. (n.d.). https://gobotany.nativeplanttrust.org/species/ilex/verticillata/
Ilex verticillata. Ilex verticillata (Black Alder, Common Winterberry, Winterberry, Winterberry Holly) | North Carolina Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox. (n.d.). https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/ilex-verticillata/
Spiraea Alba. Spiraea alba (Meadowsweet, Narrowleaf Meadowsweet, White Meadowsweet) | North Carolina Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox. (n.d.). https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/spiraea-alba/