University of Vermont Extension
Department of Plant and Soil Science
LOW NATIVE SHRUBS AND GROUNDCOVERS
Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
When choosing low shrubs or woody groundcovers for landscaping,
consider some of these northern natives. All the following plants
are hardy to at least USDA zone 4 (-20 to -30F low in winter), and
grow in sun or at least part shade unless noted for full sun.
Calling our region home, they are often better adapted than
non-native plants (meaning they need less care and have fewer
pests), and may provide more benefits to birds and pollinators.
Small shrubs are generally those under 6 feet high, fitting well in
the middle to front of borders, and for low plants along building
foundations. They are often effective planted in masses. Those
with attractive flowers or leaves can be used as specimens, either
alone or planted among other shrubs and perennials.
The black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa var. elata)
is very hardy, reaching up to 5 feet high with an upright oval
shape. Yet it can spread a bit wider. The shiny green leaves turn
a wine-red in fall. The white flowers yield purplish-black berries
favored by wildlife. You may find cultivars (cultivated varieties)
with larger fruit and even brighter fall color. This plant is
adaptable to either wet or dry sites.
The quite hardy fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica) needs to be
sited carefully as it can spread rapidly to 8 feet or more. This
makes it a good choice for slopes, especially ones that are dry, or
too steep to mow. The glossy green leaves with three parts
(“trifoliate”) somewhat resemble poison ivy leaves, and turn lovely
fall colors in yellow, orange, or red in some years. When crushed
they are aromatic, hence the species name. While the species can
reach up to 6 feet tall, the cultivar ‘Gro-Low’ reaches about half
The snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus var. laevigatus)
is mainly grown for its white fruit on arching branches. This plant
too can spread to 8 feet, but not as aggressively as the sumac, so
is good too for slopes. If it becomes scraggly after a few years,
prune back in spring to near the ground and it will regrow.
There are several native shrubs you might consider for landscapes
that are even shorter, only reaching 3 to 4 feet tall. One of these
is the less common sweet fern (Comptonia peregrina) which is
not a fern at all but has fern-like, dark-green leaves. It too is
a good choice for dry slopes or banks, is quite hardy, and will take
sun or shade. Leaves on these are pleasantly aromatic, somewhat like
leaves of the bayberry.
The bush honeysuckle (Diervilla lonicera) is not a
honeysuckle, but has light-yellow flowers like those of the
honeysuckle vine. Leaves turn nice fall colors. It only gets about
2 feet high, but can slowly spread to 5 feet or so. It is good in
sun or shade, and tolerates wet or dry soils. You may find the
cultivar ‘Copper’, so named for its coppery new growth.
The hardy native bush cinquefoil (Potentilla fruticosa) has
small yellow, rose-like flowers in June and then sporadically
through the summer. There are many readily available cultivars of
this shrub from 2 to 4 feet high, and with various flower colors
including white, pink, reds, and oranges in addition to yellows. It
grows rapidly, and grows well in dry and infertile soils, but needs
sun. You may find the species in old pastures, and cultivars along
foundations and in borders.
Native spreading groundcovers under a foot or so high, and that
prefer acidic soils, include three berries. Bearberry (Arctostaphylos
uva-ursi) is good for sandy or gravelly soils, and is salt
tolerant. It has bright red berries in fall and bronze-red leaves
then. Lowbush blueberry is the native version of the
larger-fruited ones we all know. Mountain cranberry or lingonberry (Vaccinium
vitis-idaea) prefers cool sites, has evergreen leaves, and
small white to pink flowers. Plant at least two plants of the
latter for best fruiting.
For a low, evergreen groundcover you might consider the common
juniper (Juniperus communis) or, better yet, one of its
cultivars such as Blueberry Delight, ‘Berkshire’, ‘Green Carpet’, or
the upright ‘Pencil Point’. You’ll see the native species growing
in old pastures just as with cinquefoil, and the cultivars along
walks, fronts of borders, and in sunny rock gardens.
For more examples of native plants, including larger ones, as well
as many other good shrubs and trees for Vermont, see Landscape
Plants for Vermont, available from the Vermont Master Gardener
Check your state nursery association for local nurseries that carry
a wide range of hardy landscape plants (greenworksvt.org).