Idea file: Four unusual native flowering shrubs

Fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus) in the Westview Terrace at the Toronto Botanical Garden

What is a native plant? We weighed in on this complex discussion – or argument – in 2011. Let’s just say that the four lesser-known flowering shrubs in this Friday’s Idea File are native to North America.

All are hardy in Toronto’s Zone 5-6 (USDA Zone 4-5) climate. All but one of the photos were taken in the city. For consistent comparison, however, the links in the captions take you to their listings in the excellent Missouri Botanical Garden plant database. Canadians, shift zone ratings down by one.

When is a tree a shrub? As shrubs tend to be shorter and multi-stemmed, my exec decision is to call these shrubs – but if you prefer to say small, multi-stemmed trees, I’m okay with that. The last two in this group do tend to be spreaders.

Feel free to add your own suggestions. As always, we welcome them.

Carolina allspice (Calycanthus floridus) growing in a Rosedale garden. The epithet “floridus” simply means “flowering”
Shrub or small multistemmed tree? Either way, this Carolina allspice will fill the small courtyard with fragrance
This was taken in Asheville, NC. Nevertheless, red buckeye (Aesculus pavia) is hardy to Canadian Z5. As you might guess from its spiky flower, it’s a shrubby relative of the horse chestnut.
A cousin of the red species above, this bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora) is growing on the eastern edge of
Rosetta McClain Gardens in Scarborough.


  1. Lovely photos once again, Helen. I absolutely love the Calycanthus floridus — the flowers smelled like crushed strawberries. But it is important to buy the shrub when in bloom. Some specimens smell like spoiled vinegar and you don't want one of those in your garden.

  2. Excellent choices for the idea file. The Chionanthus and Calycanthus are both on my list of plants I want to grow. Maybe once my rain garden is finished…

    Happy gardening this weekend!

    1. I've also had my eye on them for a while, which is why they ended up on my photo file. Also on my list (although more of a tree than a shrub) is Carolina silverbell (Halesia carolina), a specimen of which was growing in the same Rosedale garden as the Calycanthus. Unfortunately, it was a few days away from blooming when I visited, or it would be in this post, too.

  3. Hi Helen,

    I'll chip in with Aronia arbutifolia or A. melanocarpa (Red/Black Chokeberry), outstanding fall colour with berries.

    I did have a Halesia in my backyard but it never thrived…

    Your choices are great alternatives to the lilacs and rhodos flooding the market next month!

    1. Aronia's fall colour is an excellent red. Thanks for the addition.

      Sorry to hear about your Halesia. Such beautiful flowers, and the seed pods are interesting, too. What do you think did yours in?

  4. I would add Wild Currant (Ribes americanum) and Clove Currant (Ribes odoratum). Both very easy to grow and attractive. Good wildlife plants, too. Clove currant is very fragrant.

    1. Two great additions, Jason. I didn't realize that clove currant was native, but now I see it's listed as a Missouri native, hardy to USDA Z4 – I always find my nose drawn to it when I pass it in someone else's garden.

  5. I'm not sure why Calycanthus florida isn't more widely available. We have a came-with-the-house bush that must be close to 50 years old. It has a long period of bloom (easily 2 months) and boasts a colour shared by no other plant. Mine is scentless, but I discovered the stems were spicy when I cut them. It grows in deep shade and takes sun, spreads in a leisurely fashion by underground runners and has an excellent fall colour. A really good plant…and if it came with the house, it's a native, right?
    Love the little geum – reminds me of the troll dolls with the long hair I had when I was little B.

    1. I'm not sure why it isn't more widely available, either. And you're lucky — it's native whether or not it came with the house. (I have two very tenacious non-natives that came with mine: morning glories and soapwort. Very tough customers, and they're here to stay.)

      Yes, the prairie smoke does look like a troll doll, doesn't it?

  6. I love my 2 fringe 'trees'. They began blooming even when very young…which is a great advantage. (I live near Elora where it is cooler than Toronto)

    I adore Halesia, but mine died in its third year..of unknown causes. Perhaps moles?

    I also grow a Vitex which dies to the ground each winter but has fabulous lavender blooms at the end of the summer. Love it.

    Euonymous europeus grows quickly if you have space. It has outstanding blooms of bright pink with orange centers. Everyone comments on it.Oddly enough, I have one which has never bloomed as well. Could it be a male? The same thing happened with a fringe tree which is still lush and green…but has never bloomed.

    Have you ever grown Buddleia alternifolia? GORGEOUS. I can't locate one…

You might also like