NATIVE SHRUBS FOR DRY SITES
Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
Many gardeners are becoming interested in using native plants in their landscapes whenever possible. What makes a plant "native" has various interpretations, but to many a native plant is one already growing in an area when the first settlers arrived. There are many native shrubs adapted to dry sites, the following being a few of the more common.
For a low groundcover, creeping juniper (Juniperus horizontalis) is a good evergreen choice. Growing between 4 and 15 inches tall, depending on variety (the species is native, but there are many varieties you may now find), it is wide spreading but easily pruned. Full sun and a well-drained soil are needed, and this plant will tolerate a fair amount of drought and is quite hardy.
Another excellent groundcover, also evergreen but with broad leaves compared to the needle-like ones of the juniper, is the Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi). This may also be known as "kinnikinick". Only 6 to 10 inches tall, its glossy dark green leaves often cover the red fruit in mid to late summer. Quite hardy, it will also tolerate sandy, dry, gravely, or acid soils as well as sun or part shade.
For low shrubs between one and 3 feet high, New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus) is a deciduous (loses its leaves in winter) choice. Compact, its dark green foliage turns yellow in fall. Small white flowers open in late June. This plant is hardy to USDA zone 4, and takes sun or shade.
Another deciduous low shrub choice is the Bush Cinquefoil (Potentilla fruticosa), of which many cultivars can be found. Very hardy, tolerant of heat and drought, it needs full sun. Depending on selection, it may have white or yellow flowers from summer through frost.
For small shrubs growing 3 to 6 feet high, consider the Fragrant Sumac (Rhus aromatica), so called from its aromatic leaves when rubbed. The deciduous, divided leaves turn attractive yellow, red, or purple in fall. It is quite hardy, and prefers full sun. The most common selection now found is 'Gro-Low', so called as it grows lower than the species.
Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus) is another small, quite hardy, deciduous shrub that tolerates sun or shade. It is upright and open in habit, with round white fruit in summer on the arching branches. These fruit are attractive to wildlife.
For medium shrubs growing 6 to 10 feet high, Northern Bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica) is a good deciduous choice, hardy to USDA zone 5. It has a wide oval habit, the main feature being the gray-blue waxy small fruits resembling berries. These fruits are on female plants, with separate male plants needed for pollination and fruit set. This plant prefers sun, well-drained soils, and tolerates sandy soils and even salt.
Eastern Ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius) is also deciduous, oval in habit, with many clusters of pinkish-white flowers in June. It grows quite vigorous and can get leggy, so should be cut back severely every couple of years. The shaggy peeling bark is also attractive. Hardy to USDA zone 4, it prefers sun or part shade.
Many more selections in each of these categories, and for other sites, can be found in the publication "Landscape Plants for Vermont." This was revised and expanded in 2002 by Drs. Pellett and Starrett. It is available from the Vermont Master Gardener Program (www.uvm.edu/mastergardener/).