Spring Forward with Underused Native and Non-Native Blooming Shrubs and Trees

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner


There is a dizzying array of plants at your local nursery

Spring is an excellent time to try new plants.

There is a dizzying array of foliage and flowers at every nursery. Gardeners pile containers in their shopping carts as if they think they’re in a race with Mother Nature.

In the South, we are. Southerners struggle with two things in spring. The first is our fear of winter’s last blast, the dreaded late freeze.

Late freezes can devastate the spring garden, and in 2009, one did. It took weeks for our gardens to recover, and some plants, like the Japanese maple in my garden didn’t.


Japanese maple devastated by late freeze


We also dread early, summer temperatures and lack of spring rain. We need this rainfall to endure summer’s dominance. While we can’t control our climate, we can grow hardy plants including natives.

In the middle south, alkaline soil dominates because of our prairie past. It’s still good to get a soil test from your local county extension office to determine whether your soil is alkaline or acidic along with nutrient values. To discover whether your soil is clay or sand, take a handful of moist soil and squeeze out the water. Clay soil will make a ball, while sandier soil will fall apart.

To find native plants in your region, contact your local county extension office and your state’s native plant society. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is another great resource for gardeners in Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and some parts of Arkansas.


Spring should be a flower parade of trees and shrubs. You can’t beat native Cercis canadensis, redbuds. They are understory trees throughout our deciduous forest, and their purple blooms are early signs of spring.


Redbud trees are an early welcome sign of spring


There are also native, fruiting crabapples. While most crabapples are hybrids, you can still find native Malus coronaria, sweet crabapple, or M. angustifolia, southern crabapple, at specialty nurseries. When it comes to flowering plants though, I’m not a purist. I believe most fruiting plants that aid pollinators and other wildlife are good finds whether they are natives, improved selections or hybrids. There are several crabapple hybrids worth mentioning like Royal Raindrops®, ‘Indian Summer’ and Red Jewel®. Harvest Gold® has yellow fruit. 

Laburnum x watereri, golden chain tree, as shown in this photo from Wikimedia Commons, is another underused bloomer for the southern landscape. It is only hardy to Zone 6, and doesn’t like temperatures above those in Zone 7. However, in my state, it’s a show stopper in spring.


Laburnum x watereri, golden chain tree in full flower


Amelanchier, serviceberry or Juneberry, is an excellent native large shrub, or small tree with white blooms and dark purple, edible fruit. It has good fall color and is of special importance to native bees in spring according to the Xerces Society. The hybrid, 'Autumn Brilliance', is a popular choice.

Cornus alternifolia, our native dogwood, blooms yellow/white. It has lovely fall color and helps pollinators. It is a great small tree for the landscape, but it prefers acidic soil, cooler summers and shade in warmer climates.

Flowering shrubs

Symphoricarpos orbiculatus, coralberry or Indian currant, is a native understory shrub. According to Dirr’s Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs, coralberry is prone to mildew. I would choose the variegated cultivar, ‘Taff’s Silver Edge’ and grow it in partial shade to protect it from sunburn. Although the flowers aren’t particularly showy, pink or purple berries remain throughout winter.


Symphoricarpos orbiculatus ‘Taff’s Silver Edge’ is a variegated selection of coralberry


Ilex decidua, possumhaw, is another great shrub for winter berries. I planted two this spring, male and female.

Although the native shrub Cephalanthus occidentalis, common buttonbush, waits until June to start blooming, it is a butterfly magnet. At six to twelve feet, it’s also a tall specimen so place button bush at the back of the border in a spot where there is plenty of moisture.


Cephalanthus occidentalis, button bush is covered with white flowers in early summer


Callicarpa americana, American beautyberry, should be in every naturalist’s garden because of its prolific, purple berries. ‘Welch’s Pink’ is a pink selection of this native plant, but it has been hard to produce for commerce. In addition to the native, I also grow C. japonica, Japanese beautyberry. It’s been a wonderful addition to the garden beneath a pink Lagerstroemia hyb., crapemyrtle. Japanese beautyberry has a more open habit than the American species.


Callicarpa americana should be part of every naturalist’s garden


When writing of blooming shrubs, I must also mention another Japanese import, Kerria japonica. It comes in double and single blooming forms, along with a variegated one. However, the variegated selection I grew reverted to the species. I like kerria for its bright yellow blooms, but also, for the bright green stems. Grow kerria anywhere other shrubs have failed because it thrives upon neglect.


Japanese kerria sports yellow blooms that are double or single


Another spring bloomer is Weigela florida ‘Variegata.’ I also grow dark-foliaged Wine & Roses®  and the diminutive My Monet®, but the best performer in my garden thus far is the regular variegated version.




When you begin piling your cart with plants, don’t forget blooming shrubs and trees. They offer bright color throughout the season from flowers, foliage and berries. Try some natives too. Pollinators and birds will thank you.