It’s easy to walk right by the shrub section at a nursery. After all, annuals and perennials generally have the showiest displays.
But don’t bypass those shrubs altogether. They may not be as outspoken, but they’re still indispensable players in the garden, providing backbone and structure year-round.
The following are among my favorites. They are reliable, beautiful and grow well in many settings. They are forgiving about irrigation. They are not likely to succumb to pests or disease. They require little trimming, other than the lopping off of an occasional wayward limb. And fall is a terrific time to plant them.
Kaleidoscope Abelia (Abelia x grandiflora ‘Kaleidoscope’)
Big, glossy green abelias have been around for years. But Kaleidoscope presents an entirely new look, with a smaller silhouette and variegated leaves changing color with the seasons.
New foliage in spring emerges a pale green to soft yellow, with splashes of green. Underneath, erect stems are a rusty red. The leaves darken up over summer while pink buds open to reveal tiny, white star-shaped flowers. By fall, the leaves shift to a brighter yellow, along with orange, pink and red.
Kaleidoscope flaunts its most vivid colors in full sun. It grows fine in filtered shade, but the hues won’t be as intense. It grows 3 feet tall and 4 feet wide, and does well in most soils. Provide regular irrigation and reasonable drainage. Kaleidoscope doesn’t like sitting in water for days on end.
Dwarf callistemon (Callistemon ‘Little John’)
This Australian plant blooms year-round, with balls of sparkly red, soft bristle flowers forming at the tips of branches covered with lightly fuzzy, bluish-green leaves. The flowers are heaviest from early summer through fall and attract hummingbirds.
Dwarf callistemon is highly adaptable, doing well everywhere from Phoenix to the Central Coast, and in full sun to light shade. It grows 3 feet tall and 3 to 5 feet wide. It’s nice as an accent, in a mass, or in a container, where a single plant easily fills a medium or large pot. It requires low to moderate irrigation. Let the top inch of soil dry out between waterings, especially during hotter months.
Compact breath of heaven (Coleonema pulchellum ‘Compact Form’)
This wispy shrub releases a sweet, fresh scent when its needle-like, light green leaves are crushed. Legend has it that it was planted just outside the doors of fine country manors so that women could brush against it with their broad skirts, then make a grand entrance while smelling like a “breath of heaven.”
Compact breath of heaven grows wider than tall, reaching 4 to 6 feet wide, yet only 3 tall. But it still manages to maintain a round, upright shape. Its small, starry pink flowers bloom all year, and are most profuse from winter to spring. It does well in full sun or part shade. Provide regular irrigation and fast drainage. Avoid heavy soil unless you plant it on a slope.
Dwarf variegated mirror plant (Coprosma repens ‘Marble Queen’)
This shrub has an elegant, crisp look, and bears stiff, shiny, slightly cupped leaves that are deep green and edged in white. Any flowers are remarkably absent. In fact, I can’t recall having ever seen one in bloom.
Dwarf variegated mirror plant grows at a moderate pace to 3 to 5 feet tall and 4 to 6 feet wide. It tolerates wind, although in especially blustery settings, it won’t grow as tall. Provide regular irrigation year-round, and some shade protection from the hot afternoon sun. It prefers full sun only in the most coastal of conditions.
Variegated spurge (Euphorbia characias ‘Tasmanian Tiger’)
Technically this is a succulent perennial, not a shrub. But it serves the same purpose and behaves just as well as the others.
Starry clusters of long, skinny leaves are pale, blue-green and edged in cream. Bunches of small, cupped flowers in the same two shades rise above the foliage in late summer. The effect from afar is of a neat, upright shrub in a fresh shade of bright green. It’s especially nice when backlit by the late-afternoon sun.
While the common name is nothing special, the botanic name refers to where the plant was discovered — in a garden in Tasmania in 1993.
Variegated spurge grows fine in my difficult clay soil, but performs well in sandy soils, too. Provide low to regular water and full sun to light shade.
Wiri Blush hebe (Hebe ‘Wiri Blush’)
Distinctive sprays of hot pink flowers that attract butterflies bloom throughout summer on this tidy, rounded shrub, which grows 4 feet tall and wide.
The leaves are long, narrow and glossy green, giving Wiri Blush a somewhat formal look. It makes an excellent foundation plant and grows well in containers.
Native to New Zealand, Wiri Blush prefers cool summers and mild winters like ours. It grows moderately fast with regular irrigation.
However, as with other hebes, avoid any locations where it might end up sitting in cold, wet soil.
Gulf Stream heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica ‘Gulf Stream’)
This diminutive heavenly bamboo is ideal for small, narrow spaces, as it grows only a foot or so wide, yet reaches up to 2 and a half feet tall. It is perfect along a tight walkway or as an edging in a constricted space.
New growth in spring is bronze. The leaves shift to dark, bluish-green over summer, then turn orange and red in fall. The most vivid colors are triggered by colder temperatures.
Gulf Stream tolerates a broad range of soils. It does well in filtered light to full sun, with regular to occasional irrigation.
Compact sweet pea shrub (Polygala fruticosa ‘Petite Butterfly’)
This is such a sturdy gem that it’s planted in mass next to the door of my veterinarian’s office. Dogs visit the bed all day long, yet the shrubs don’t seem to suffer.
Even more, compact sweet pea shrub never stops blooming. It grows fast to 3 feet tall and wide, bearing grayish-green, heart-shaped leaves and purple and white, pea-shaped flowers that look somewhat like butterflies.
Provide sun or light shade, good drainage and regular irrigation year-round.
Purple Chinese fringe flower (Loropetalum chinense ‘Plum Delight’)
This woodland plant bears small, rounded purple leaves along layers of long, horizontal branches. In spring, unusual, hot-pink fringe flowers appear, then bloom sporadically through the rest of the year.
Purple Chinese fringe flower grows slowly to 6 to 8 feet tall, but can easily be kept smaller. The stems are somewhat brittle: avoid places where you haul hoses or might brush against it.
Plum Delight is one of several purple fringe flowers. Their coloring may shift to olive green in summer, but should return with cooler weather. The dark hue blends beautifully with other purple-leaf plants, including various Japanese maples, purple-leaf plum trees and coral bells. Provide cool sun or partial shade, and regular to occasional water.
Morning Light coast rosemary (Westringia fruticosa ‘Morning Light’)
This soft shrub from Australia looks fantastic when backlit, whether at first light or late in the day. Tiny, gray-green leaves with cream-colored edges overlap one another up the stems, with the newest leaves at the tips appearing as the brightest green.
The common name “rosemary” describes the little white flowers, which bloom in spring. They look like rosemary, but are not aromatic and this shrub is not an herb.
Morning Light grows slowly to 3 to 4 feet tall and wide. It is quite drought tolerant, especially in heavier soils. Regular irrigation is fine, provided you have excellent drainage.
What’s In a Name?
Check the full botanic name before you buy, as all plants are not equal.
For instance with Abelia, Kaleidoscope grows 3 feet tall, 4 feet wide and bears yellow and green variegated leaves that turn color in fall. Other Abelias may grow 6 to 8 feet tall and wide and bear bronzy to all-green foliage.
Likewise, Gulf Stream heavenly bamboo is less than half as tall as many heavenly bamboos. And at a foot or so wide, it’s far narrower.
Tracking down these specific plants may take time. But they are well worth the hunt.
Seeds of Wisdom
Stand back and let your shrubs grow. But be sure to provide enough room at the outset. Initial looks in a 1-gallon — or even a 5-gallon — container can be deceiving.
Visit Joan’s website at www.SantaBarbaraGardens.com, or post a comment by clicking on “Leave a Comment” back up at the top.