Hardy shrubs have declined in popularity in recent years, partly because of our love of herbaceous perennials, which are considered, rightly but rather narrowly, to provide swifter effect in the garden.Herbaceous perennials are all very fine (and few gardens feel quite right without them) but they do not make shrubs redundant, since the latter are generally better at providing structure and height and color, flower and scent in spring before herbaceous perennials hit their stride.
And, although well-known shrubs such as Spiraea 'Arguta’ and Viburnum opulus have a case to be included here; there are masses of less widely planted shrubs begging to show their worth.
- Cercis chinensis 'Avondale’, a form of the Chinese redbud, makes a large shrub or small tree, with masses of purple-pink pea flowers on the bare shoots in late March and April. The leaves then unfurl; they are very big, heart-shaped, pale green in colour and turn yellow in autumn. This plant is hardy, happiest in full sun or partial shade, and likes a fertile, moist but well-drained soil.
- Halesia carolina is one of the choicest of all spring shrubs (or small trees), having adorable, nodding, pure white snowdrop flowers in late spring, once the plant has a few years on the clock. These are ¾in long, and hang in clusters of three or five on short stalks. These flowers turn into 2in-long, pear-shaped fruit with four wings and a tail. When fully ripe, these are brown, chiming well with the leaves, which yellow in autumn.
- Chaenomeles x superba 'Jet Trail’ is an unusual ornamental quince with a dwarf spreading habit, so it can be used for ground cover, provided the soil is cleared of perennial weeds. The semi-double white flowers appear through March and April, before and after the leaves unfurl. Chaenomeles like a sunny spot, but are not particuularly fussy about soil pH or constitution, as long as there’s good drainage.
- Exochorda x macrantha 'The Bride’ is another hardy shrub, with great garden presence, because the startlingly white flowers are quite large and thickly carried in 4in-long racemes at the end of short sideshoots. The branches tend to weep, and I have seen it grown on a sloping bank near water. Immediately after flowering, remove flowered shoots and thin out the others.
- If you garden on an acid soil, Fothergilla major is almost a must, since it has very striking, scented, petal-less, creamy white flower heads, which are made up solely of stamens. These are carried in spring on a multi-stemmed, medium-sized shrub.
- Stachyurus praecox, from Japan, is a large, spreading, deciduous shrub, with slender, pointed, oval leaves, which are preceded by long spikes or catkins of pale yellow, bell flowers. Leaves colour in autumn. Stachyurus praecox is hardy, although early flowers can be damaged by hard frosts. The shrub needs shelter from cold winds, so does well in a protected shrub border or woodland area, but can also be trained against a wall.
- Acradenia frankliniae is an evergreen shrub from Tasmania, where it is called whitey wood. This also has opposite leaves, composed of three long, glossy, green leaflets, coarsely toothed on the margins. Small white flowers appear in late April and May in terminal clusters. This medium-sized shrub likes fertile, damp, but well-drained neutral or acid soil in partial shade, where it won’t be buffeted by winds.
- Ribes odoratum or buffalo currant is hardy, not fussy about soils or aspect, healthy and easy to grow. The clove-scented, five-petalled flowers are golden-yellow and occur in clusters; they appear in April and May. The leaves, similar to a gooseberry, turn dark red and purple in autumn.
- Berberis valdiviana, it looks like something different in the berberis line, from Chile, makes a tall (6ft-10ft) evergreen shrub. It does not spread sideways too much and the glossy green leaves set off the long, saffron golden racemes of flowers in spring. Although there are a few spines on the shoots (which are avoidable), the large leathery leaves are pretty well spineless.
- Abeliophyllum distichum is a Korean relation of the common golden-flowered forsythia, but less beefy. It also flowers a little earlier, especially if trained against a warm wall, which is where it thrives best. Before February is out, and before the oval, opposite leaves have appeared, the creamy white, four-petalled flowers, with their golden centers, will be scenting the air. (There is a pale-pink variation, Roseum Group).