Spring 2021 Conservationist

Native Shrubs

by Dave Andrusyk, Community Engagement Services


Spring has arrived, which means it’s time to start thinking about sprucing up the garden. Here at the Forest Preserve District we’re all about “going native,” using plants that naturally grow in this area and are well-adapted to local rainfall, temperatures and pests. To get a nice “bang for your buck” while shopping for natives for your own yard, consider shrubs! They support wildlife as flowers and grasses do but also fill spaces large enough for bigger plants but not necessarily trees. (In general, shrubs are under 15 feet tall and grow from multiple stems versus a tree’s single central trunk.) Here are some suggestions to get you started.



The rounded spicebush grows 6 – 12 feet tall and prefers moist but not wet soil in dappled sun to medium shade. Its tiny yellow flowers bloom in spring before any leaves appear, but its flowers, leaves and stems all produce a spicy, pleasant aroma. Unlike other flowering shrubs, spicebush is “dioecious,” which means that male and female flowers are on separate plants. Because of this arrangement, without pollinating insects to transfer pollen from one plant to another, spicebush would not be able to produce berries. The leaves are irreplaceable meals for caterpillars of the spicebush swallowtail butterfly and the promethean moth, and the berries are favored by vireos, catbirds, thrushes, and white-throated sparrows, among others.



Buttonbush grows 3 – 8 feet tall in wet soils, even in areas where it floods. In fact, buttonbush tolerates most soils as long as they’re not excessively dry. The shrub grows fuller with more flowers in full sun but can do well in light shade. Its sweetly fragrant, nectar-rich flowers look like small white Sputniks and host up to 24 species of butterflies and moths as well as bumblebees, leaf-cutting bees and hummingbirds. As the flowers age, they turn rosy and then eventually brown. Many songbirds as well as wood ducks, blue and green-winged teals, black ducks, and other waterfowl eat the shrub’s fruit.


Red Osier Dogwood

Red osier dogwood grows 3 – 9 feet tall, sprouting multiple shiny red stems that fade as they age. The shrub prefers full sun to partial shade and moist, well-drained soils; it doesn’t tolerate areas that are hot and dry. Creamy white clusters of flowers appear in late spring to early summer and are replaced midsummer by attractive white berries. In fall the shrub can be quite stunning with yellow and orange to dark red leaves. In winter the bright red stems create a gorgeous contrast with the snowy ground.

The flowers’ nectar and pollen attract long and short-tongued bees, wasps, flies, and butterflies. Moth caterpillars that feed on the leaves are in turn food for fledgling birds. Cardinals, tanagers, thrushes and grosbeaks like its high-fat berries, and white-tailed deer and eastern cottontails forage on its stems.

Blackhaw Viburnum

Although a multistemmed shrub, blackhaw viburnum can grow as tall as a small tree, reaching up to 15 feet. It prefers light shade to part sun and slightly moist to dry soil. Its white clustered flowers appear in April and May and attract cuckoo bees, mason bees and bee flies as well as butterflies, hummingbird moths and ants. The leaves are vital to caterpillars such as the spring azure and hummingbird clearwing.

Late-summer berries attract migrating white-throated sparrows, thrushes, vireos and eastern bluebirds as well as resident chipmunks, squirrels and mice. In fall, many blackhaws produce stunning dark red leaves.


Early Wild and Illinois Rose

Wild roses are not like the ornamental varieties. They produce single pink flowers followed by red fruits called “hips” that remain on the plants through winter. They don’t flower repeatedly throughout the season as ornamentals do but have loads of flowers and leaves that are less prone to disease.

Early wild rose grows about 4 feet tall and 3 feet wide. It likes full sun to partial shade in dry to moist, well-drained soil. Its smooth twigs and stems produce few small thorns, and as its suckers grow, it creates a large mass of shelter and nesting habitat for wildlife. Nectar-feeding insects love its flowers, especially long-tongued bees, such as brown-belted bumblebees, and short-tongued bees, such as green sweat bees.

Illinois rose is a climbing plant that can reach 8 feet long and spread to 10 feet wide. It grows in full sun to part shade in moist, well-drained soils. Many gardeners like this species because it can be trained on a trellis. Its stems, or “canes,” grow their first year, flower and fruit the second, and die in the third, so it’s best to prune out third-year canes to keep the plant flowering. Illinois rose provides prime nesting habitat for many songbirds and a reliable source of food for bees, flies, beetles and other insect pollinators.