How to Choose a Flowering Tree or Shrub

Best flowering shrubs and trees to plant in spring

April 30, 2019
Serviceberry

It’s spring and the garden centers are packed with trees and shrubs ready to be planted. If you are thinking of adding a new flowering shrub or tree to your landscape, how can you choose from the many beautiful plants that are available this time of year? Too many choices! Let’s narrow the field by looking at your site.

  • Space: Where are you planning to put this new arrival? It may be a cute little shrub right now but in a few years it could outgrow the space and most trees get really big and are difficult if not impossible to move. Read the tags while shopping. They should tell you the mature height and width of the plant. If you have a small garden, look for dwarf cultivars that will fit your space.
  • Location: Be aware of the surroundings. Powerlines, septic systems, sidewalks and other paved areas, and buildings should be given wide berth. Don’t plant a tree that will drip sticky sap or drop fruit where you park your car! Check with Dig Safe before digging any holes to be sure you don’t hit underground utilities.
  • Hardiness:  Before you fall in love with a plant make sure it is going to survive in your area. Know your zone for both heat and cold. The plant tag should tell you which zones that are right for that plant.
  • Soil: Is your soil sandy, clay, or loam? A soil test will tell you what nutrients may be lacking. Check the pH; some plants like sweet soil with a pH of 7 or above while others prefer it more on the acidic side. Some shrubs that like acidic soil are: heather and heath, enkianthus, fothergilla, redbud, gleditsia, holly, cotoneaster, hibiscus, kerria, physocarpus, and mountain laurel.

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Mountain laurel flowers will light up a shady location.

  • Moisture: Is the location wet or dry? A soggy spot will be certain death to a plant that doesn’t like wet feet while another will naturally thrive in a wet location. A few shrubs that like wet soil are aronia, calycanthus, clethra, Virginia sweetspire, and viburnum dentatum. Some trees that do well in a moist location are red maple, river birch, black gum, pin oak, and salix. Some shrubs are more suited to dry soil such as physocarpus, potentilla, spirea, cotoneaster, beautybush, sumac, and bayberry. There are trees that are right for a dry site including northern catalpa, honey locust, Kentucky coffeetree, white oak, bur oak, and silver linden.

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Beautybush (Kolwitzia) has clusters of pink bell-shaped flowers in late spring.

  • Light: Sun exposure is most important. A plant that prefers full sun is not going to perform well in the shade. Some shrubs that do well in a spot that gets only a half day of sun or less are forsythia, magnolia, rhododendrons, mock orange, fothergilla, witch hazel, Virginia sweetspire, mountain laurel, kerria, viburnums, and oakleaf hydrangea. Some trees suited for part shade are redbud, pagoda dogwood, Cornelian cherry, and serviceberry.

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Amelanchior or Serviceberry is a native flowering tree that has berries for birds and colorful fall foliage.

Now that the specifics of the site have narrowed your search for the perfect plant let’s look at the plants themselves:

  • Shape: Do you want a mounded shrub or one that spreads its limbs wide, a lollypop-shaped tree or one with an open vase-like look? You can prune a plant to have whatever shape you desire but that will take work each year to maintain. It is better to choose something that has the shape you want naturally. 
  • Pest and disease problems: Avoid plants that are known to be disease-prone or look for resistant cultivars. If a certain insect is a problem in your area don’t plant more food for it to decimate! In my area viburnum leaf beetle has killed many of the native viburnums while the non-natives such as Korean spice and doublefile are not on the menu. Deer, rabbits, and porcupines love to eat bark and tender new branches. If they are a problem in your area, make sure to protect your newly planted shrubs and trees.
  • Native or non-native: Other than the instance involving the viburnum leaf beetle above, it is always better to choose the native plant over the non-native. The native will be providing valuable nourishment and shelter for birds, bees, native pollinators and other beneficial insects. See shrubs and trees that attract birds!

It pays to plan before you plant. Happy shrub and tree shopping!

Ready to plant? See our Growing Guides for popular flowering shrubs.

About This Blog

Get inspired by Robin Sweetser’s backyard gardening tips and tricks. Robin has been a contributor to The Old Farmer’s Almanac and the All-Seasons Garden Guide for many years. She and her partner Tom have a small greenhouse business and also sell plants, cut flowers, and vegetables at their local Farmer’s Market.