When my friend Amie asked me what to plant in a bare spot near the corner of her house, I said she needed a shrub. “Oh, no, I don’t like shrubs,” she said, but as it turned out, Amie didn’t like ‘green meatball’ shrubs that do nothing but fill space. She’s all in on choosing a native shrub that will enhance the landscape while serving the needs of insects and birds.
One of the best places to look for shrubs for pollinators are the regional plant lists published by non-profit Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. After some study of these and other lists, I’ve discovered five widely recommended native shrubs for pollinators, described below. As more people move away from growing exotic species with little wildlife value, these plants are top choices for doing what shrubs do best – define boundaries, fill corners, or soften the lines between house and yard.
Native Shrubs for Spring
Every spring I am amazed by the number of buzzing insects visiting my highbush blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum), which get very high ratings as an all-round wildlife plant. In addition to pleasing early-season pollinators, berries that escape human harvesting are much beloved by birds.
Amie already has issues with birds crashing into her windows, which was a strike against blueberries and another spring standout, Oregon grape holly (Berberis aquifolium). Native to the western US and Oregon’s state flower, Oregon grape starts blooming very early, before winter is over, and the yellow flowers give off a honey scent. They attract numerous bees that fly in cool weather, and the berries that ripen in late summer are of interest to fruit-eating birds.
Evergreen and deer resistant, Oregon grape’s large, holly-like leaves create a coarse texture that draws attention in any landscape. Widely adapted in Zones 5 to 8, Oregon grape is different from leatherleaf mahonia, a similar imported species from China that has become invasive in many areas.
Summer Blooming Native Shrubs
New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus) is a standout among shrubs for pollinators, with leaves that can be used as a tea. A rounded deciduous shrub growing to 4 feet tall and wide, New Jersey tea produces scads of white flower clusters in early summer that attract hummingbirds, butterflies and numerous native bees. Meanwhile, several moths and butterflies use the foliage as their host plant.
Native to rocky slopes and dry banks in Zones 4 to 8, New Jersey tea can be slow to establish because the plants take time growing deep, woody taproots. Young plants may need protection from deer, but established plants are of much less interest to browsing animals.
An elegant shrub with long, arching branches, ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius in the East; P. capitatas in the West) produces showy white flowers clusters in early summer that are much loved by bees and other pollinators. Native to open woods and rocky woodland edges in Zones 2 to 8, ninebark also comes in red-leafed versions, but Maryland researchers found that native insects didn’t like them. Green-leafed ninebarks make better shrubs for pollinators.
For soggy sites that might flood at times, there is buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis). Native to moist stream banks in the eastern half of the US, buttonbush is also found in central California. Sometimes called button willow, this distant coffee relative is a late summer standout for butterflies, hummingbirds and other long-tongued pollinators.
The delicate round white flower clusters resemble pincushions, have a sweet fragrance and are followed by buttonlike seed heads that are eaten by dozens of species of birds. Adapted in Zones 5 to 9, buttonbush grows into a loose, rounded bush 3 to 12 feet high, though size varies with site the strain.
Local nurseries may offer these two cultivars: ‘Sputnik’ was selected from a wild population in Oklahoma for its 8 to 10 foot tall rounded shape, blooming vigor and yellow fall color. A newer selection, ‘Sugar Shack’ from Proven Winners, has a uniform 4-foot size and features seed head ‘buttons’ that ripen to rich reddish brown.
Which native shrub did Amie choose? New Jersey tea and ninebark have made her short list, and she has until spring to make her final pick.