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Hard Working Shrubs Add Color to the Season

by Nel Newman

Autumn’s not just for perennials after all. Sure, everyone loves the fall show of asters, chrysanthemums, and helianthus, but there’s more to see at this time of year. A few well placed shrubs can color your world from fall through winter, and many will feed the birds as well.

Shrubs bridge the season with showy leaves, persistent seed pods, fresh flowers, and maturing berries. Spring flowering favorites return to the spotlight with fabulous fall color. Roses, blueberries, and forsythia bring welcome red and yellow tones to the changing landscape as their leaves prepare to let go for another year. Baby’s breath spirea turns pure yellow before losing its leaves; in southern gardens, they often remain until new growth emerges. Red vein enkianthus grows slowly to six feet tall with leaves three inches long that turn with the season to butter yellow, tangerine orange, and scarlet red.

The Burning Bush (Euonymous alata) truly catches fire in fall, each leaf a flaming red sword in sunny garden spots. Look for hardy ones: ‘Nordine Strain’ for more compact growth, and ‘Timber Creek’ has berries that hang on into winter.

Witch hazel (Hamamelis) boasts brilliant fall color and red flowered varieties develop even redder hues. ‘Diane’ turns rich, orange-red, ‘Jelena’ goes to a more apricot shade, and ‘Ruby Glow’ changes orange to scarlet.

Late-flowering shrubs like blue mist spirea (Caryopteris) and abelias can keep a mixed border blooming well past summer in many areas; the glossy abelias have whitish pink flowers and also develop purplish leaves in winter. Closely related is ‘Edward Goucher’, a smaller abelia with lilac pink, tubular blooms.

Deep south gardens delight in Camellias with flowers from white through pink and red to mottled and striped on evergreen plants ranging in size from groundhuggers to ten by ten foot screening plants. C. japonica (called camellias) generally have larger leaves and more rounded shapes than earlier-flowering C. sasanqua (called sasanquas). The tea-oil camellia is hardier than its relatives, and blooms in late fall.

American beautyberry (also known as French mulberry) and Japanese beautyberry may sound like geography soup, but these deciduous shrubs have violet drupes that hold on after the leaves fall. They offer excellent wildlife food with berries in riotous colors, especially the cultivars ‘Luxurians’, ‘Issai’, and ‘Profusion’.

The viburnum family holds many treasures for fall and winter. The classic doublefile viburnum looks like its name sounds: double tiers of very horizontal branches covered with purple-red leaves in fall. After they drop, the black drupes remain until eaten by birds. In hot, dry climates, southern black haw (V. rufidulum) grows into a lovely, openly branched shrub with abundant dark blue fruit. For yellow-orange fruit, look at ‘Michael Dodge’ or ‘Aurantiacum’.

Hollies. Just when it seems the garden’s gone entirely to gray, more shrubs feature a burst of color on winter’s darkest days. Choose hollies (Ilex) from a range of mature heights and spreads, with berries in red, orange, and even yellow, and leaves evergreen and thorny or softly deciduous. There’s even an outstanding holly for fall foliage, ‘Harvest Red’. For a large holly, ‘Willowleaf’ delivers abundant berries. Possomhaw, native to the southeastern US, and ‘Sparkleberry’, black alder, and winterberry (the hardiest I. verticillata) provide holly berries on starkly deciduous, multi-trunked shrubs. Traditional hollies have red berries, but orange cultivars include ‘Aurantiaca’ and ‘Afterglow’.

Cotoneasters. All but the most humid climes can grow one or more cotoneasters; their red berries mark great arching shrubs and tiny-leafed, creeping ones, like the rockspray cotoneaster, ‘Robustus’. The larger ‘Redbeads’ put on hundreds of pinker fruit and have bluish leaves; these grow to ten by ten feet tall. For most unusual, creamy yellow fruit, look for Cotoneaster ‘Rothschildianus’, another large shrub for sandy, well-drained soils.

Mahonia (Oregon holly-grape) delivers blue berries even in partial shade. The broad leafed evergreens grow slowly, but with great impact. The bluish black fruit appear in August and persist through winter. Some mahonias turn bronze in fall, others have nearly yellow leaves in autumn.

Japanese barberry (Berberis) and its cultivars ‘Atropurpurea’ and ‘Bogozam’ grow at moderate rates to a mature five feet and about as wide. Their bright red berries are shaped like tiny footballs. Fruit and leaves will be more colorful in sunny sites.

Bayberry (Myrica) boasts fragrant drupes, grayish white and coated with wax that makes them last through difficult weather for hungry birds to find on the coldest days. Bayberry’s "cousin", the southern wax myrtle (or candleberry) is an evergreen and holds its fruit until spring in a mild winter.

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