Native Shrubs and Small Trees for Southern New England

Stamford, CT

I’m often asked: “I want to go native but what should I plant?”  I like to start with shrubs and small trees – they provide structure, plus year-round habitat and interest, while maturing faster than full-sized trees.  The local list is amazingly long, thus the length of this post (don’t blame me – blame the number of plants).

Featured here are shrubs and small trees that I have actually seen growing in uncultivated areas in Stamford, CT, under circumstances that lead to a reasonable conclusion that the plant is a local genotype rather than, say, a garden escapee or something planted in the wilds in a well-meaning (but often misguided) restoration attempt.

There are a whole lot more shrubs which are said to include Connecticut within their “range” (see list at the end of this post).  The reason that I haven’t seen these other plants could  be because the deer ate them all or it could  be that the plants don’t naturally occur in the warmer, coastal section where I live.  A third possibility is that they don’t naturally occur  in CT at all and ended up on various lists by mistake.

So here’s the laundry list with some rough notes.  This list is intended as a starting point  – a list of resources for further research appears at the end of the post.  The full description of these beauties, their value to wildlife, and their cultural conditions is, of course, a book.

Swamp rose in the wetlands at Stamford’s Bartlett Arboretum

As a general rule, if you want to plant native, stick to the species plants, preferably local genotypes.   Garden cultivars, particularly those that are resistant to this or that, and those that distort the plants’ natural characteristics, are unlike to function as native, in my view.  Further, only the species plants from your area (not the other end of the state) are likely to be the acceptable host species for the specialized herbivores actually in your area, and if the plant is not supporting these animals, what use it is? (Yup, I’m a purist!)

Native Shrubs and Small Trees for Southern New England

1. Speckled alder (Alnus rugosa) – nice shrub turns into a graceful small to mid-sized tree- handsome catkins bloom in March, attractive foliage.  Does wet and garden.

2. Shadblow/shad/serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis) – graceful, small apple-relative, works well in part shade in urban settings and adorns the edges of the local woods.  Apple-like early spring flowers (when the shad run up the Hudson).  June fruit disappears fast.  Trunk bark has an attractive pin-stripe. Plant away from junipers to limit the spread of cedar-apple rust fungus (not harmful but can be messy in an extreme case).

3.- 4. Paper and gray birches (Betula papyrifera, B. populifolia) – decorative, small, white-barked trees, with early season flowering catkins.  Good small yard trees. Mix well with evergreens for winter interest. Good bugs. Easy from seed.

5.- 6. Hornbeam/ ironwood (Carpinus caroliniana) – graceful small trees for understory conditions. Rough-barked hop hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana) is a close relative and good too. Both have early catkins as is typical of the Betula (birch) family; both also have unusual, decorative seed coverings.

7. Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) – outstanding large, thick bush for a wetter area. Very tough.  Easy to start from seed.  Beautiful mid-green leaves, pretty flowers, etc.  Beloved of swallowtail butterfly larvae and many other insects and pollinators. One of my favorites.

8. Sweet pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia) – Summer blooming – like pearls, good anywhere, any time.  Best flowering with a bit of sun plus average garden or wetlands moisture.  Kids will love this: at least in wetlands, the flowers often harbor ambush bugs. Butterfly favorite.

9. Sweet fern (Comptonia peregrina) — does ordinary garden to hot/dry; badly underused, nice compact, fine-textured bush with good color.  This plant is off by itself  in the wax-myrtle family with no siblings to speak of; it’s vaguely related to beeches.

10. Silky dogwood (Cornus amomum) – is the only local shrub dogwood.  Twigs turn a beautiful red in winter.  The late summer fruit is very important to local wildlife – you can decorate your garden with fruit-loving birds.  Silky dogwood does wetland and garden conditions.  Best fruit in full sun with ample moisture.

11. Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) – nice small tree for part shade with good air circulation; stunning in the understory. If possible, give it morning, rather than afternoon or mid-day, sun. Seems to have survived the invasive anthracnose that was plaguing it a few years ago.  Good late season fruit. America’s answer to the flowering Japanese cherry.

12. American hazelnut/American filbert (Corylus americana) – Grows in the wetter sections of the woods often near a wetland.  Can be confused with witchhazel but look for the serrated leaf edges and the early-season catkins of this multi-stemmed birch relative.  The hazelnuts that I know in the wild only produce a few fruit each year but they are encased in lovely, frilly, leafy skirts of lime and pink – you have to see this to believe it.

13. American witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana) – be careful to get the local species that blooms in the fall; attractive small tree for the  understory with large, flat leaves to add visual texture.  Nice twigs too. Important for late-season pollinators.  Does open woods to riparian buffer.

14. American holly (Ilex opaca) – grows to be a medium-sized tree. You need male and female for fruit. Often seen in the older parts of town in pairs gracing either side of the front door.  This is good placement but plant far enough away from the house for air circulation and to take into account the tree’s mature size.  Nice, thick winter shelter.  I love coming across a baby one, bird-spread, struggling to grow in an odd part of the woods.

15. Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) – always good in the garden, great winter fruit. It can be hard to get species plants, let alone local genotypes (Earth Tones  Native Plant Nursery has them); the birds don’t seem to accept all garden cultivars – nor would we wish to spread them.  For all hollies, you need male and female plants for fruit.

16. Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) – There is some question as to whether this pioneering juniper is fully native to CT or arrived too late after the last Ice Age to be an evolved, in-balance member of the ecosystem but it’s good winter survival food and good winter shelter.

17. Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) – it’s wonderful!  Likes the understory, with well drained, acidy soil.  Show-stopping late spring flowers, beautiful branching shape, well-behaved.  What more could you want?

18. Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)- fantastic understory shrub; naturally does edge-of-wetlands. Not too tall.  Open form; tiny spring flowers; mid-season, brilliant red fruit with a nutritious high-oil content. Has its own swallowtail butterfly.  Relative of sassafras; is a true spice.

19. Sweet crabapple (Malus coronaria) – is said to be native to the NY border and naturalizes well in CT.  provides important winter fruit and gorgeous spring flowers. My personal all-time favorite.  Crab apple cultivators seem to naturalize OK.

20. Northern Bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica) – thrives by the mailbox where you get road salt. Birds love the berries. Semi-evergreen. Said to need full sun and to tip-layer easily.

21. -22. Beach plum (Prunus maritima) – great if you live along the Long Island Sound and can plant in a sandy dune just above the high tide line.  Good for the same area is northern marsh elder (lva frutescens).

23. Hop tree (Ptelea trifoliata)– underused native, called a tree but more of a multi-stemmed bush.  Pretty compound leaves, large, decorative seeds.  Like many of the other shrubs and small trees listed here,  hop tree has been included  in the plantings at the High Line in NYC.

24. Pinxterbloom azalea (Rhododendron periclymenoides) – deciduous azalea with showy flowers, understory in open woods; always a treat when I come across this in the wilds; gets deer-browsed.

25. Swamp honeysuckle (Rhododendron viscosum) – another nice one for the wetlands; trumpet- shaped flowers, attractive winter buds.

26. -29. Staghorn (Rhus typhina), smooth (Rhus glabra), fragrant (Rhus aromatic), and shinning sumac (Rhus copallina)  – are all good, especially in large stands near the edge of a building or a woodlot. Use a root barrier to prevent unwanted spreading. Good winter bird food.  Awesome color all year.

30-31. Caneberries (Rubus, spp.)- we have several local red raspberries e.g. American red raspberry (Rubus idaeus) and blackberries e.g. black cap raspberry (Rubus occidentalis) that are good for large areas where they can ramble.  The only invasive caneberry of note at this time is wineberry (with red-haired stems).  The natives are easy to start from cuttings or tip layering.  The invasives Rosa mulitflora, Rosa rugosa and wineberry are easily replaced with local caneberries and native roses– they grow in the same place, so often if you keep cutting the invasives back, the natives will often fill in the space via the birds.

32. Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) – wonderful; starts easily from a cutting rooted in water.  Berries are high in antioxidants for the birds. Can get 10-12 feet high. Does ordinary garden in part shade or full sun with ample water. Hollow steams were historically used for everything from flutes to drinking straws and needle cases. Stems break easily so should be protected from, say, pick-up football games.  Called “nature’s medicine chest”.

33.White Meadowsweet (Spiraea alba) – nice for wet or part shade woodland understory; summer blooming; open growth so might not be a front-of-garden show piece. Seems to be spreading locally so  I guess the whitetail deer don’t care that much for it but, then, you never know with deer.

34-36. Swamp rose (Rosa palustris) – wonderful for the wetter areas; the Scalzi Riverwalk Nature Preserve’s test at a local nursery school is showing that it also thrives under ordinary garden conditions.  Large single rose flowers in a bright pink,  followed by  large brilliant red hips.  In swamps, grows to at least 10 feet.  Virginia rose (Rosa virginiana) and pasture rose (Rosa carolina) are good for drier areas.  Lay off the chemicals and enjoy the leaf spots as part of the plants’ natural beauty.  Grows easily from seed.

37.-38. Pussy willow (Salix discolor) and Bebb’s willow (S. bebbiana ) do ordinary garden as well as wet areas, pussy willow becomes a tree; Bebbs stays shrub-sized. Wonderful for riparian areas. Robins are partial to the nesting crotches of larger pussy willows.  Supports extremely interesting bugs.

39. American Bladdernut (Staphylea trifolia) – very pretty, well-behaved but under-used shrub, interesting late summer seed cases.  Does a fair amount of dry-ish shade.

40. – 41. Eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) and arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis) – are actually large trees but can be grown as shrubs to help you amass enough native conifers for adequate winter cover for your foundations and your birds.  Hemlock is plagued by invasive wooly adelgids if planted under less than ideal conditions (understory woodlands – part sun, acid, moist but well-drained soil).

42 – 43. Blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium , V. corymbosum) –  stunning fall color – better than invasive winged euonymus could ever be. Need two plants that bloom at the same time for fruit.  Low bush is better than high bush for shadier areas.  Shallow roots need acidy leaf-mold mulch and adequate moisture but don’t do wetlands except for our local swamp blueberry sub-species.  Blueberry cultivars seen to be OK for the garden (but not for introduction in uncultivated areas) as long as you’re not planting them where they could interbreed with and corrupt native stock.  Blueberries are wimps so protect them from aggressive garden plants.  Your yard robins will be delighted by this food from their familiar woodlands.

44.- 46. Arrowwood viburnum (Viburnum dentatum) – very adaptable. Be very very careful when choosing viburnums as several non-natives have gone rogue.  Arrowwood has delicate white flower clusters followed by fast-disappearing blue fruit. The leaves look pleated and the leaf edges look cut with pinking shears.  Hobblebush (Viburnum lantanoides) doesn’t do coastal but is OK north of the Merritt Parkway, be careful to not confuse it with the invasive linden leaf viburnum.  American Cranberry Bush (Viburnum trilobum) is good but often confused with the invasive European – even by the sellers.  I have noticed in the woods that the viburnums which succumb to viburnum beetles are the ones in too much shade.  At Scalzi Riverwalk Nature Preserve, we thin the canopy cover over the arrowwoods to discourage these invasive pests.

47. Maple-leaf Viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium) – best shrub there is for deep shade. Nice flowers and berries, good fall color.  Can get 10 feet tall when the deer don’t over-browse it.

48.  Opps: I forgot: Choke cherry (Rosaceae Prunus 25’ white flowers, good fall color, leaves poisonous to livestock, lovely bark, summer red-black fruit important to birds but messy – plant away from paths, driveways and patios, OK in part shade.

49. And one more:  Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) 40- 50’ Can occur as a tree or shrub; naturally likes edge-of-woods; not particularly drought tolerant.  Suckers so best allowed to grow in clumps in an uncultivated areas. Great fruit for birds. Lovely fall color.  Like mulberry, 3 leave shapes (snow shoes, mittens, and gloves) but unlike mulberry leaves are smooth edged, papery, and medium to large in size.

 Native Woody Stemmed Ground Covers

GROUND COVERS:  If you want to add the woody-stemmed ground covers, depending on your area, there’s bearberry, huckleberry, bog laurel, sheep laurel, bog rosemary, several dewberries, common juniper, leatherleaf, wintergreen, cranberry, Canada yew, bunchberry, trailing arbutus, sea lavender …..

NEVER NATIVE: Despite popular belief, the following are not native to CT: Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica), Witch-alder (Fothergilla, sp), Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis)

Elderberry leafing out in spring at the Scalzi Riverwalk Nature Preserve

More Native Small Trees for Southern New England

MORE: The above 60+ plants ought to be enough, right?  However, here’s 40+ more that are said to include Connecticut in their “range” (whatever that means — probably “area of actual distribution by any means” rather than “area where naturally occurs”).  I’ve never seen these plants in the wild but have no experience with the north or east part of the state or any ground that’s not deer-ridden.  I won’t consider them native for your area until you have proof that they actually grow in your local area or an adjacent area.

If  you have a confirmed sighting of any of these plants occurring naturally in CT,  please add at comment. I’d be particularly interested in Aronia which seems to pop up in so-called “native” gardens and restorations in my area on a regular basis.

  • Common serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea)
  • Allegheny serviceberry (Amelanchier laevis)
  • Red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia)
  • Black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa)
  • Eastern pawpaw (Asimina triloba)- native to NY
  • Northern bush-honeysuckle (Caprifoliaceae Diervilla)
  • New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus)
  • Pagoda (alternate-leaved) Dogwood (Cornus alternifolia)
  • Grey dogwood (Cornus racemosa)
  • Round-leafed dogwood (Cornus rugosa)
  • Redosier dogwood (Cornus sericea)
  • Beaked filbert (Corylus cornuta)
  • Local hawthorns (Crataegus, sp)
  • Bush honeysuckle (Diervilla lonicera)
  • Swamp Loosestrife (Decodon verticillatus)- unconfirmed presence in Stamford CT
  • Leatherwood (Dirca palustris)
  • Eastern wahoo (Euonymus atropurpureus) -confirmed inWestchester
  • Smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens)
  • Kalm’s St. Johnswort (Hypericum kalmianum) – New York native
  • Inkberry (Ilex glabra)
  • Sweetbells leucothoe (Leucothoe racemosa)
  • American fly honeysuckle (Lonicera canadensis)
  • Swamp fly honeysuckle (Lonicera oblongifolia)
  • Maleberry (Lyonia ligustrina)
  • Staggerbush (Lyonia mariana) – possibly extinct in CT
  • Trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens)
  • Sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana)
  • Common mountainholly (Nemopanthus mucronatus)
  • Common Ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius)
  • pitch pine (Pinus rigida)
  • Bush cinquefoil (Potentilla fruticosa)
  • American Plum (Prunus americana) -Native American introduction from Midwest ?
  • Eastern sand cherry (Prunus pumila)
  • Scrub oak (Quercus ilicifolia)
  • Rosebay rhododendron (Rhododendron maximum)
  • Wild honeysuckle (Rhododendron nudiflorum)
  • Purple-flowering raspberry (Rubus odoratus)
  • Shrub-sized local willows (Salix, sp.)
  • Witherod viburnum (Viburnum cassinoides)
  • Nannyberry (Viburnum lentago)
  • Blackhaw viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium)
  • Downy arrowwood (Viburnum rafinesquianum)

Good data bases to check:  After reading Mark Turner’s wonderful: What’s Native? What’s not?   Here’s an up-dated list of research sites for CT:

Note: none of these sources are perfect so I always check them all plus local botany field-trip lists if available,  e.g. Bedford NY Audubon  and NYNJCT Botany.

Question:  So what great CT shrubs did I miss?  Which are your favorites? Please post your thoughts in the comments.

PS  Many thanks to my Scalzi Riverwalk Nature Preserve team mate, Master Gardener Lisa Shufro, for her contributions to this post.

Silky dogwood fruit, bird-ready, at the Scalzi Riverwalk Nature Preserve

Additional  posts in this series are:

The Ultimate Guide to Finding Native Plants

To find these and other native plants, please visit the Ultimate Guide to Finding Native Plants to locate your local native plant nurseries and native plant societies.

© 2012 – 2013, Sue Sweeney. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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Comments

  1. says

    Wow – excellent information here Sue! Interesting that you don’t see the Pagoda Dogwood (C.altinifolia) in Stamford – we are very close to the CT border here in central MA and it grows in the wild all over the place…
    Thanks also for the USFS link…adding that to the “usual suspects” of ID sites that I use…
    Ellen Sousa recently posted..NWF and ScottsMiracle-Gro? No!

    • Sue Sweeney says

      Ellen – Lack of Pagoda Dogwood (C.altinifolia) could be a deer problem but we have lots of silky dogwood, so I think we’re too close to the coast.

  2. says

    Sue, What a wonderful list of natives. Unfortunately I can’t use some in my own garden, or in the ones I design, since they are deer candy. It’s unfortunate that we can’t find many of the straight species avalable in our local nurseries. Do you have a few reputable ‘go-to’ native plant nurseries in the area that you use?
    Debbie recently posted..Lyme Disease, Acorns, Mice & Opposums…Oh, My!

    • Sue Sweeney says

      Just goes to show that you never know about deer, and also the placement is everything. In the wild where I am the arrowwood are surviving the deer, despite browsing. This is partially so because a lot of the arrowwood occurs in large masses in the riparian buffer and deer prefer to keep their feet dry and vary their feed. Plant one arrowwood in the middle of a yard in the fragmented forest, and it’s gone.

  3. says

    Sue we need purists to keep us on track…NY is continually working on refining their list of Natives by county…many in your list are native here as well but again I would need to see them in the wild. I am lucky to have a state univ close by that works on tracking down what is native in our area and the state…too bad their symposium was during my regular day job…I hope to attend another year…
    Donna@ Gardens Eye View recently posted..Bird Counting

    • Sue Sweeney says

      I wish UConn took this attitude – last I heard they just invested in producing a sterile Japanese barberry – think if that energy had gone into educating people (starting with the UConn staff) why they should plant native.

  4. says

    We love our viburnums! We have two American Highbush Cranberries, and we’ve ordered two more. We also ordered two Nannyberry Viburnums. We’re very happy with our viburnums and would recommend that everyone plant some.
    WisconsinWildMan recently posted..The Good Weeds

  5. Ruth Parnall says

    This list is an incredible resource for those who plant in somewhat acidic well drained soil. I wish landscape architects/designers would use it as their boilerplate “palette” (horrifying but true) rather than the typical mugo pine, littleleaf linden type of list that is more common. I love all of those plants – not just because they are part of the regional landscape composition, but because they are beautiful.

    Add these?: Gaylussaccia spp. (Huckleberry) and Acer pensylvanicum (striped maple). I also think of some of the taller native grasses as shrub-like for design purposes – Panicum virgatum (switchgrass) appropriate for most areas.

    I have seen Aronia at the CT College Arboretum…can’t confirm whether it was planted or natural.

    Unfortunately, we in western MA (and all of NY too, I think) have not a deer problem with viburnums but an exotic pest problem…viburnum leaf beetle. Arrowwood and American cranberrybush are being killed, but all of the others get it too.

    • Sue Sweeney says

      Ruth – some of the shrubs and small trees listed are for acidic, well drained soil (basic CT forest understory); quite a few also do riparian buffer, and a few such as bayberry and beach plum are good along the Long Island shore line in sand and salt. I tried to note the conditions for each plant.

      Huckleberry is on the ground cover list and Acer pennsylvanicaum (beautiful tree) would be on a tree list but only for cooler upper lands. It does not grow naturally along the shore where I live.

      As noted above, I’ve only seen the viburnum beetle get out of control in shade – the full sun arrowwood by me don’t have it — have you also noticed this? Maple-leaf viburnum also seems pretty much immune here. Have you notice this as well?

  6. says

    Sue, stellar list of stunning natives! Stellar post, as usual. Thanks so much. Many of the natives on your list are also native to our area here in southern NJ. Mind boggling that nurseries, landscapers, and the like can’t come around and favor these gems!
    Pat Sutton recently posted..Hanging Baskets in Winter?

  7. Sue Sweeney says

    Everyone, please- the whole point here is to only plant what naturally grows in your local area so you can help feed your specialized wildlife who depend on these plants, directly or indirectly, for food. If you’re going to start planting stuff from another area just because it’s pretty, that is not helping.

    If you live out of my area, if you want to help wildlife, you need to make sure that the desired plant grows in your area as well. Yes, we all have some things in the garden that aren’t on the “purist list” that take up space which a good local native plant could have. However, why intentionally add to the problem? As this article demonstrates, there are plenty of good local choices for each area.

    In other words, lay off my plants, you have plenty of your own!

  8. Valerie says

    Hi Sue, Thanks for the great info. Just curious, is Middletown considered southern connecticut and if not, how do I find a plant list that is more appropriate to my area?

    • Sue Sweeney says

      Valerie – You’re central Ct. Sadly There are no lists, at least that I know of. You have to make your own as I have done. You can use my list for starters but you need to get out in the wilds and see what actually grows where you live the links listed above may be of some help.

      Also this book is some what useful but not great. http://www.ctdepstore.com/Vegetation-of-Connecticut-324.htm

      Along the CT River where you are, you may have some ecological organizations, such as a river keeper, that may have reliable, local information. If you get a good list/source, please post it here.

  9. Sue Sweeney says

    This book has just been released. I haven’t seen it as yet and fear it’s for PhD’s only. It’s $85. According to the blurb it does distribution only down to state level, which is not particularly useful for CT except to exclude the nowhere-near natives.

    New England Wild Flower Society’s Flora Novae Angliae
    A Manual for the Identification of Native and Naturalized Higher Vascular Plants of New England

    http://yalepress.yale.edu/yupbooks/book.asp?isbn=9780300171549

  10. Sue Sweeney says

    Thanks to Heather Holm, here’s a new one at least for you folk in mid-central to northern CT. According to the NRCS, American Plum (Prunus americana) is found naturally occurring in New England http://plants.usda.gov/java/profile?symbol=pram.

    In Southern CT, while we have beach plum galore in the sand dunes along Long Island Sound, I’ve near seen wild plum. The UConn Torrey herbariumhttp://rbg-web2.rbge.org.uk/cgi-bin/nph-readbtree.pl/allspecs?ETI=Prunus+americana only has it in north-central CT (Tolland County) – up-land woods I think. Sigh! I think I have plum envy.

  11. says

    Hi Sue,
    you listed many sources to check for native status. the most up to date source is Flora Novae Angaliae by Arthur Haines & Liz Farnsworth. Arthur has listed his research on each plant to check the plants historical record and has changed many plants status for native populations from the Agaes & Magee Flora of New England. The GO BOTANY web site has excellent maps and photos along with its status as endangered or special concern etc.in New England.

    p.s. red bud is listed as native populations in new haven county CT
    kyle recently posted..HEAT WAVE Please Call 1st

  12. Ruth J says

    Thanks for this amazing list! I’m new to the NE and am planning & planting a garden for the first time so was thrilled to come across this list.

  13. Jon Arnow says

    Hi Sue,

    I used to work at the Bartlett , back in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Henry Johnson, who acted as chief propagator, collected plants from the cleared areas of the l-84 highway as it was coming through Newtown, CT, where he and his wife lived.He would do this on the weekends, on his own time, and bring the plants to the Arboretum in his old station wagonon the following Monday. What he found was staggering.Most if not all are lost now.He was never appropriately appreciated for what he tried to do for the Bartlett Arboretum.
    I used to grow many of the native azaleas, but always had a tough time selling unless…they were in flower. Then they went like hotcakes. I’d like to help at the next plant sale ( assuming there will be a next sale ) and would like to get in touch with you about that and what I can grow to help for the sale.Let me know.

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