February 17, 2020
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Finest shrubs prompt you to pause

Finally, buds are swelling. Walking through Marjorie’s garden with my morning coffee, I stop to admire the opening buds of red elder, clusters of purple flower buds surrounded by embryonic leaves. They look like miniature broccoli heads.

I stop for a moment to inspect the Northern bayberries for signs of winterkill, find none. Soon I will not be able to pass these shrubs without crushing a leaf between my fingers and savoring the spicy scent. This is why we planted them, and for the bold texture and dark green of their summer leaves, and for the waxy, bayberry-scented berries that cluster along the stems of the female plants.

With planting season fast approaching, it is a good time to reflect on the garden worth of native shrubs. I recommend to you four species, three with fragrant foliage, and our native shrub roses.

Northern bayberry, Myrica pensylvanica, is a semi-evergreen shrub native from Newfoundland to Maryland. It grows wild in the coastal region of Maine, often within the reach of salt-water spray, where it forms immense rounded colonies due to its suckering nature. In cultivation it is often used in poor sandy soils where few other plants will grow.

All parts of northern bayberry are aromatic when crushed. Its waxy gray berries, produced in abundance along the young stems of female plants, have been used in making bayberry candles. The fruit appears in fall and may persist all winter. The lustrous, leathery, green leaves have also been used for making a gray-green dye.

Sweetgale, Myrica gale, is a deciduous low-growing shrub, up to four feet in height, with suckering roots. It inhabits swamps and the land near ponds throughout the higher latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere, often found growing in dense thickets, its glossy blue-green to dark-green leaves making the perfect background for wildflowers such as cardinal flower, Lobelia cardinalis. It can be successfully grown, however, in average garden soils with moderate moisture.

Only moderately shade-tolerant, sweetgale prefers open spaces with plenty of sun. It forms an attractive natural hedge, either alone or in combination with other native shrubs such as mountain-holly, Nemopanthus mucronatus, and highbush blueberry, Vaccinium corymbosum.

Colonies of sweetfern, Comptonia peregrina, consisting of low shrubs up to three feet tall, grow in dry sandy soils along the coast of New England, in old abandoned fields and in woodland openings. Highly tolerant of shade, sweetfern grows best in poor acid soils. Not a true fern, its aromatic leaves are fernlike in appearance, often remaining dried on the plant through the winter. Like sweetgale, the narrow, lobed leaves of sweetfern are covered with resin dots, the source of their spicy fragrance. During the Revolutionary War, American colonists used the leaves of sweetfern as a substitute for tea.

Many gardeners shy away from using sweetfern because of its vigorous colonizing habit, a characteristic that can be used to advantage, however, where a lush groundcover is needed. I recall a beautiful planting at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, sweetfern covering the ground beneath the canopy of a multi-trunk white birch.

For a striking year-round combination, interplant bayberry with one of the native roses, either the Carolina rose, Rosa carolina, or Virginia rose, R. virginiana. The dark-green foliage of bayberry makes an excellent background for the simple pink flowers, deep-red autumn leaves, and bright red hips of these roses. I cannot take credit for this design, however, as it is a common sight along the wild rocky coast of Maine.

Bayberries, sweetgale, sweetfern and native roses, these are among the finest of garden shrubs. Each provides cause to stop for a moment on morning strolls, to sniff the fragrance of a crushed leaf or cup a deep-pink rose in your hand.

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


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