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Top shrubs for designers

Top shrubs for designers

Heptacodium miconioides has scented flowers from August to October. Photo: Bluebell Arboretum and Nursery

Discover some lesser-known varieties to expand your planting palette

Sourcing good garden shrubs is a problem regularly experienced by garden designers. Robert Vernon of Bluebell Arboretum and Nursery has his own personal list of lesser-used but worthwhile shrubs for designers to consider.

For unusually late flowers

Robert recommends Heptacodium miconioides AGM, which is “a lovely 3-4m tall multi-stemmed shrub native to China – it’s also called the Seven Son Flower of Zhejiang. It has lightly scented white flowers in clusters of seven from August to early October, when there’s not much else going in the shrub world,” he says. “Planted somewhere hot, it produces the best flower display followed by some lovely autumn colour.”

For something small but perfect

Try Amelanchier rotundifolia ‘Helvetica’. “It’s a dwarf shrubby amelanchier growing to 1.2-1.5m tall. Someone bought one two years ago and they are keeping it to about 90cm – by pruning it after flowering, you can limit it to whatever height you want. It’s has all the assets of the popular larger Amelanchier; masses of flowers in spring and pretty autumn leaf shades in orange, bronze and red.”

For autumn colour for urban gardens

Robert suggests Cercidiphyllum japonicum ‘Boyd’s Dwarf’, a dwarf form of the katsura tree on the cusp of being a large shrub or a small tree. “It’s very slowgrowing,” he explains. “I’ve had one growing in our arboretum for 10 years and it’s only 2.5m tall and 1.8m wide, but you can prune them back to any size. It has a beautiful acer-like habit, pretty heart-shaped leaves in summer and glorious golden-orange autumn colour. As the leaves crisp up and fall off the air smells of toffee apples.”

Indigofera pendula. Photo: Bluebell Arboretum and Nursery

An underused favourite

When it comes to Indigofera pendula, he feels that nobody plants enough of this. “It’s a large 3-4m shrub with an upright habit, but gently arching branches that flower in mid-tolate summer. These are lilac-coloured and look a bit like wisteria flowers, although much more dainty.” It ideally needs to go against a wall or fence – somewhere sunny and sheltered – where the flowers will cascade in front of you. 

Mahonia gracilipes is a tough evergreen for part shade, with interest year round. Photo: Bluebell Arboretum and Nursery

For an interesting evergreen

One shrub that makes an interesting evergreen is Mahonia gracilipes. “This is a tough evergreen for woodland or part shade that’s interesting year round,” Robert says, “and again, I really don’t see it grown enough. We have a 10-year-old one in the garden that is only about 1.2m tall. Unusually it flowers in early to midsummer, unlike the traditional spring-flowering time for Mahonias. It has purple and cream sprays of flowers and glaucous-blue leaves.”

For scent

If it is fragrance you are seeking, Elaeagnus umbellata makes a great scented shrub. “This is normally semi-evergreen but with us here in Leicestershire, it drops its leaves because it’s colder. In May and June, it’s quite commented upon because it has masses of tiny elusive flowers that nobody can see, but then they throw off the most delightful scent that stops you in your tracks. It’s a wonderful fragrant plant that requires limited maintenance.”

Want to learn more about shrubs? Book your tickets to the SGD Autumn Conference on 26 November at

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