June 22, 2018
Living Latest News | Poll Questions | Border Patrol | Energy Scam | Toxic Moths

Chilly spring provides time to enjoy the beauty of native shrubs

By Reeser Manley

The pace of this garden year has slowed to that of a slug sliding up a dandelion stalk. Our garden has plenty of both.

We wait and hope, holding space in the vegetable garden for summer crops, for heirloom tomatoes with exotic names such as Cosmonaut Volkov, Caspian Pink, Amish Paste, Principe Borghese, Pink Brandywine; for a tomatillo called Pineapple that drops its ripe pea-size fruits on the ground to be scooped up and eaten like popcorn while we pull weeds; for an old Maine cucumber, Boothby Blonde; and for sprawling vines of summer squash, Yellow Crooknecks and Patty Pans.

We bide our time walking slowly around the garden, enjoying the subtle beauty of spring-flowering native shrubs that we have planted over the years. The cold and rain have worked to slow the advance of these plants from bud to bloom, allowing mature flowers to endure.

Native Honeysuckles

The first to flower each spring is the American fly honeysuckle (Lonicera canadense). The common name will never sell it, but the early May flowers and summer fruits, hidden among the leaves, have a unique, understated beauty.

One of two native honeysuckle species found in Maine, L. canadense, grows slowly in open, dry shade to a maximum height and width of 6 feet, but honeysuckle shrubs of this size are rare in the wild, where competition for nutrients and water often limit growth. They reach their full potential under a gardener’s care. Planted six years ago beneath the canopy of mountain maples at the edge of the garden, our three shrubs took three of those years to establish, growing slowly, but now seem to have picked up the pace. The largest is perhaps three feet tall and half as wide.

The first flowers opened on May 8 this year, small pale-yellow trumpets dangling in fused pairs from long, slender stalks. New flowers opened each day for two weeks, each pair of blooms lasting for a day or two before becoming transformed into a pair of green, egg-shaped berries that will slowly ripen to bright red.

The fruiting plant is a bird magnet. The entire shrub shakes with the frantic movement of cedar waxwings and other songbirds as they quickly devour the small ripe fruits in early summer.


It has been seven years since we were invited to dig a few hobblebush (Viburnum alnifolium) from private wooded property where mature plants had produced hundreds of offshoots from underground stems. We planted them along the edge of the driveway under the canopy of yellow birches.

On May 14, one of these hobblebushes finally produced a single cluster of snow-white flowers.  The inflorescence is of the lace-cap type, a cluster of tiny fertile flowers surrounded by a halo of showy bracts. We watched it develop from an April bud cluster into a small bouquet that has brightened its corner of the garden for the past two weeks.

Hobblebush gets its common name from its low-growing horizontal branches that catch you just above the ankle as you walk through the woods. This seems to be more a feature of young seedlings and offshoots than of older plants, which send their flowering branches upward. I usually meet the flowers of hobblebush at eye level, but our still-youthful plant produced its single inflorescence two feet off the ground.

Where can you purchase these and other native shrubs for your garden? Not likely at the local nursery; their beauty is too subtle, hidden in the understory and accessible only by foot, invisible at 30 mph.

Instead, you might look just ahead of the bulldozer’s blade, a rescue effort. Dig them carefully in fall or early spring, taking as much root as possible, then transplant them to sanctuary in your garden. We have succeeded in this with the hobblebush and another native viburnum, the mapleleaf viburnum (V. acerifolium).

Marjorie and I spend these chilly mornings on slow walks around the garden, coffee cups in hand, Dixie and Reilly running in and out of sight. We stop at the hobblebush growing beneath the yellow birches, the honeysuckles beneath the mountain maples, the now robust colonies of mapleleaf viburnum scattered about the garden, the serviceberry off the back porch that produced a handful of delicious berries last year.

I remember the day we planted each of these. Each plant has a history that is part of our history, part of our togetherness in this garden.

Send queries to Gardening Questions, P.O. Box 418, Ellsworth 04605, or to rmanley@shead.org. Include name, address and telephone number.

Have feedback? Want to know more? Send us ideas for follow-up stories.

You may also like