April 1, 2013

Best of the bunch

Steve digs his way through all the contenders and comes up with six top shrubs guaranteed to enhance your garden and give lasting joy.

It’s fairly common practice in newspapers and magazines for writers to focus a topic in the form of a numbered list: top 10 of this, best six of that, 50 things you should do before you die, lists like that. When I came to write this story in list form – six of the best shrubs, ones that every avid gardener should have – I immediately ran into an avalanche of candidates worthy of inclusion. Camellia, pieris, skimmia, choisya and sarcococca all immediately sprang to mind as terrific evergreen shrubs with great flowers, great fragrance and great foliage.

Daphne odora is an old favourite with super-scented blooms, while D. burkwoodii ‘Carol Mackie’ has striking variegated foliage. You can’t beat the calycarpa for its eye-catching purple berries or calycanthus for its wine-scented ruby flowers or spirea for its total reliability and indefatigable flower power. Forsythia is much loved for its bright yellow flowers in early spring, a sign that it is time to prune roses. But many gardeners agree that this is one shrub some of us prefer to enjoy in other people’s gardens, mainly because of the space it can gobble up.

The same goes for witch hazel and chaenomeles (more commonly called “japonica”). Berberis, especially purple forms like B. thunbergii ‘Purpurea,’ makes an excellent low-hedge in sunny locations. It is particularly useful for burglar-proofing outside windows because of its prickliness. I’m not a huge fan of variegation, but I always appreciate the graceful look of Cornus alba elegantissima, considered a workhorse shrub. Cornus alternifolia ‘Argentea’ is similar, with smaller, more delicate and refined leaves.

Buddleia would be a top pick but it has come into serious criticism in recent years as an invasive plant, because birds and wind can easily distribute seeds. Viburnum is a must-have shrub in some form. The Korean spice viburnum (V. carlesii) also gets top points for fragrance, while cultivars of V. plicatum, such as ‘Mariesii,’ get thumbs up from connoisseurs. Many amateur gardeners pick the snowball viburnum (V. opulus) for its lovely rounded, white flowers without even knowing its name. In my garden, I found a spot for Viburnum ‘Summer Snowflake’ and have never regretted it because it blooms beautifully and consistently every year.

The beauty bush (Kolkwitzia amabilis) is a shrub I have long admired for its soft pink flowers and cascading habit, but never found room for. Same goes for weigela, abelia and escallonia. I like them when I see them in flower, but have never planted one. It was love at first sight when I met Exochorda ‘The Bride’ because of its eye-catching pure white flowers and graceful shape. It is on my wish list. And I always feel I should plant a burning bush (Euonymus elatus), with its fiery red foliage in fall.

Pittosporums are fabulous evergreen shrubs for those who live in milder areas where they flourish. My garden is too cold in winter for them. Same with Oleander, a spectacular flowering shrub I love from days in Italy. Okay, okay, let’s get down to business: on the opposite page I’ve picked six of the best.

Steve Whysall is The Vancouver Sun garden columnist:


  1. Rhododendron augustinii. Rhodos are an indispensable part of any coastal garden. Varieties of R. yakushimanum and williamsianum are all good, but I cannot resist the beauty of R. augustinii’s blue flowers.
  2. Hydrangea ‘Limelight.’ I wish when I started my garden years ago I had planted more hydrangeas. I love all the forms, blue mopheads, fancy lacecaps, re-blooming hybrids; the new forms of paniculata are terrific, especially ‘Limelight’ with its lime green cone-shaped flowers.
  3. Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’ (smoke bush). Not only does this have leaves that are a beautiful shape and colour, it has striking frothy panicles of pink flowers that look a little like puffs of smoke from a distance.
  4. Hibiscus syriacus (Rose of Sharon): Yes, I know you have to wait until the end of summer for this to flower, but it’s always worth it. August comes and the garden needs a lift and this shrub delivers in spades, producing masses of flowers that last for weeks and weeks.
  5.  Nandina domestica (Heavenly bamboo): The dwarf forms are ideal for dotting into more formal sunny landscapes. This is one way to have the look of bamboo without the headaches.
  6. Enkianthus campanulatus. We all need at least one classy shrub in the garden and this has stacks of pedigree. The delicate clusters of tiny hanging, bell-shaped pink-tipped flowers are gorgeous in late spring. You will want to take photos to frame.


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