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Native Shrubs in Illinois

submitted by: Laurie Henderson
Illinois Extension Master Naturalist-Clinton County 

Bushes and shrubs are mainstays of a landscape design in any property.  They can soften hardscapes such as house foundations and patios, stabilize soil and reduce erosion.  They can define a property line, provide a wind break, create privacy or serve as a focal point. In any application they can add color or textures and increase curb appeal.

Years ago, “trimming the hedges” was part of normal yard maintenance. Today's homeowners prefer choices that require minimal maintenance and landscapers and big box stores have responded. Now landscapes in many neighborhoods feature the same shrubs on property after property giving a “cookie cutter” look.

To give a landscape a more distinctive look without inviting more maintenance, homeowners can consider using native alternatives.  Native bushes and shrubs evolved to live in local conditions. If matched to their preferred soil and light situations, natives can match or beat exotic varieties for beauty, utility, low maintenance and drought resistance. Following are just a few examples of alternatives.

  •  New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus) This attractive, formal shrub grows only 2-4 feet in height. Happy in hot dry sites or in rocky or poor soil, this shrub’s fragrant, white flowers bloom from May to June. Though deciduous, this shrub could be used in place of boxwoods or Japanese spirea. Requiring no trimming or shaping, New Jersey Tea is drought tolerant but should be protected from rabbits and deer until established.  
  • Shrubby St. John’s Wort (Hypericum prolificum)  A dense shrub with stiff erect stems and shiny, narrow, dark green leaves, Shrubby St. John’s Wort grows 2-5 feet tall and produces showy, bright yellow flowers June to August.  It could be used in place of azaleas in foundation beds, as a border, as a hedge or for erosion control. Drought tolerant, it grows in full sun to medium shade and is attractive to butterflies but not usually to deer.
  •  Beauty Berry (Callicarpa americana)  Beautiful, ornamental shrub growing 3-5 feet tall with an open arching habit, beauty berries are known for bright green foliage and late summer/fall fuchsia berries. These shrubs can be used singly or en mass and would be as beautiful near the entrance of a home as in a border or transition to a woodland garden. They will grow in dry to average soil in full sun to partial shade and may benefit from a protective layer of mulch in the fall.
  • Wild Hydrangea (Hydrangea arborenscens)  A fast growing shrub, growing to 4-5 feet in height, wild hydrangea prefers rich, organic soil that can be dry to moist and is drought tolerant. It prefers light to medium shade but will tolerate deep shade. Large clusters of flat, creamy white, flowers open in June and last many weeks. Not a favorite of rabbits or deer, this shrub attracts butterflies.    
  • Ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius)  This large shrub grows 8-9 feet tall and can be grown singly as a specimen, massed in a hedgerow or screen, or used for erosion control.  Though it grows best in dry to medium wet, well-drained soil, it tolerates a wide range of conditions including poor soil and tough conditions. This shrub offers multi-season interest. It produces white to pinkish flower clusters (similar to spirea) on arching stems in spring/summer. The foliage turns a variety of colors in fall and in winter, the bark peels away in strips to reveal reddish brown inner bark on mature stems.

 Many locally owned nurseries offer native plants and shrubs, though homeowners may have to ask for them. For more information on: Other native shrubs - ; Garden designs using native plants and shrubs - ; Suppliers of native plants - ; Why natives are important