Native Alternatives to Overused Foundation Plants, Part I

Typical overused foundation plants

By Elaine Mills, Extension Master Gardener
Photos by Elaine Mills

In walks around my neighborhood in Arlington, Virginia, I repeatedly see a limited palette of plants surrounding the foundations of homes and apartment buildings. The popular selections include euonymus, privet, cherry laurel, nandina, barberry, and Asian azaleas. Other favorites are boxwood, yew, burning bush, bush honeysuckle, and mophead hydrangea. While some of these non-native plant choices are benign, others are considered invasive in Northern Virginia and beyond, escaping from cultivation through the spread of their pollen and seeds.

Our Tried and True Native Plant Selections for the Mid-Atlantic Region offers many attractive substitute shrubs that can add beauty and diversity to the landscape while providing nectar, pollen, and fruit for the insect and animal species with which they have evolved. Read on to learn about the ornamental qualities and wildlife support offered by native alternatives for these popular alien shrubs.

Alternatives to Invasive Shrubs

Invasive Berberis thunbergii (Japanese barberry) is known to be a breeding place for deer ticks that spread Lyme disease. A great native substitute is Physocarpus opulifolius (common ninebark), which attracts numerous pollinators and birds. It has a similar growth habit with arching branches (minus the spines) and offers four-season appeal with showy domed flower clusters, interesting seed capsules, and exfoliating bark. While the straight species has dark green leaves, various cultivars have foliage ranging from burgundy and wine red to lime green and golden yellow.

Bush honeysuckles (Lonicera maackii, L. bella, L. morrowii, and L. tatarica) have long been favored for their sweet-smelling blossoms. Now considered among the most troublesome invasives in Arlington and Alexandria because of their spread to natural areas through seed dispersal by birds, they can be replaced in home landscapes by native Calycanthus floridus (sweet-shrub). When planted near a front door or patio this upright, multi-stemmed shrub delights the senses with its showy and fragrant flowers. The straight species has 2-inch maroon flowers with a fruity fragrance combining hints of pineapple, strawberry, and banana. ‘Athens,’ one of the most fragrant cultivars, has pale greenish-yellow blossoms.

Ligustrum japonicum and L. sinense, two Asian privet species, are local popular choices for privacy hedging that can escape from cultivation to form impenetrable thickets in nearby natural areas. Viburnum nudum (possum-haw), the showiest of the native viburnums, is an excellent substitute. This multi-stemmed shrub grows to 12 feet with lustrous dark green leaves that turn stunning shades of maroon, burgundy, and red-purple in the fall. Its fragrant white flowers provide pollen for native bees, while its multi-colored fruit is prized by birds.

While not especially noteworthy during the spring and summer, Euonymus alatus (burning bush) is often chosen as a landscape specimen for its fiery fall color. Unfortunately, its numerous seeds are eaten and spread by birds to forests where it outcompetes native shrubs.  A native alternative with multi-season interest is Itea virginica (Virginia sweetspire). This graceful, arching shrub is covered with drooping clusters of white flowers from May to June, and in autumn the foliage turns flaming shades of orange, crimson, and burgundy. Green or red twigs and persisting leaves and fruit capsules provide winter interest. In addition, the shrub attracts bees and butterflies for pollen and nectar and offers nesting habitat and cover for birds. While the straight species can reach 10 feet in height, shorter cultivars (‘Henry’s Garnet’ and ‘Little Henry’) are available for smaller garden beds.

Nandina domestica (nandina or heavenly bamboo) has been a popular choice as a foundation plant since it was introduced as an ornamental from Asia over 200 years ago. Regrettably, its colorful fruit is often spread by birds, and it has invaded forest habitat in all southern states from Virginia to Texas. The berries are also toxic to cats and cedar waxwings. A native plant with similar bamboo-like foliage and red fruit is Euonymus americanus ([American] strawberry-bush). This airy, multi-stemmed shrub has inconspicuous yellow-green flowers in May and June that develop into unique, eye-catching raspberry-colored fruits. The 5-lobed capsules burst open in late summer to reveal seeds with orange-red coverings, leading to its common name ‘hearts-a-bustin.’

See fact sheets on other invasive shrubs (autumn olive, butterfly bush, Japanese spiraea, leatherleaf mahonia, and rose of Sharon) with suggestions of native alternatives at Invasive Plants and Better Alternatives.

Stay tuned for Part II of this article to learn about native alternatives to other non-native shrubs!

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