Evergreen shrubs are one of the most functional plants for the homeowner’s landscaping needs. Their uses are many, including foundation plantings, privacy screens, and accent plants.
Unfortunately, some of the most commonly used evergreen shrubs are non-native plants with invasive or weedy tendencies. Nandina or heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica), which is one of the most ubiquitous landscaping shrubs, is sadly among these nasty plants. In addition to being invasive, the berries are toxic to birds. In my opinion, this is a shrub that should never be planted or sold! Despite the damage it causes, you’ll find it offered at almost every nursery and used by most commercial landscapers.
But the story does not end there. Other commonly used evergreen shrubs are also extremely damaging to our native habitats and the wildlife that inhabit them. Examples include leatherleaf mahonia (Mahonia bealei), silverberry or thorny elaeagnus (Elaeagnus pungens), Scotch broom (Cytisus scoparius), and the many species of privet (Ligustrum spp.).
These shrubs invade natural landscapes either through seeds (usually dispersed by birds and other wildlife) or though vegetative means. The harm they can do is extensive, taking over woodlands, meadows and other natural areas. Here they shade out or outcompete native species, degrade natural ecosystems, and reduce food and shelter for native wildlife. Large stands of invasive plants can also change the course of waterways and affect the water table.
Fortunately, there are many worthy native evergreen shrubs that will serve as excellent alternatives to these invasive shrubs.
The ones listed below typically grow to a height that makes them appropriate for the home landscape, and some are available in dwarf forms.
♦ Dwarf yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria ‘Nana’): This dwarf native holly is a good choice for the home landscape, growing only 3 to 5 feet tall. The small oval leaves are leathery, dark green and shiny. On female trees, tiny white flowers are followed by red fruits in fall. It tolerates a wide variety of soil types and moisture conditions.
♦ Inkberry (Ilex glabra): This native holly bears small, glossy leaves and typically grows 5 to 8 feet tall in a mounded growth habit. Tiny white blooms are borne in spring and are followed by black berries on the female plants. It is often found in damp areas in its natural habitats but is adaptable to average soil in sun to part shade.
♦ Wax myrtle (Myrica cerifera): This native shrub is a popular landscaping plant and is tolerant of many conditions. The narrow leaves give the plant a finely textured appearance. The species typically grows 15 to 25 feet tall, but dwarf forms are available. The bluish white fruits are relished by many songbirds.
♦ Doghobble (Leucothoe fontanesiana): The arching branches of doghobble give it a distinctive appearance in the landscape. The glossy, deep green foliage has a bronzy cast when new. In spring, doghobble bears racemes of fragrant, white, bell-shaped flowers. It performs best in moist, acidic soil in part shade. It typically grows 3 to 6 feet tall, but dwarf forms are available.
♦ Florida anise (Illicium floridanum): This native evergreen is known for its spicily fragrant, dark green, elliptical leaves and its unusual star-shaped flowers that are red to maroon. It prefers rich, moist soil and full to partial shade. It typically grows to 10 feet tall, but dwarf cultivars are available.
♦ Great laurel or rosebay (Rhododendron maximum): Large, elliptical, evergreen leaves and showy blooms in early summer make this a standout in the landscape. The typical bloom is white to pink, and the flowers are borne in large clusters. It typically grows 6 to 10 feet tall and prefers shade to filtered sun.
♦ Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia): White to pink flower clusters, which are borne in late spring to early summer, stand out against dark green, glossy, elliptical foliage. This native shrub typically grows 6 to 15 feet tall and prefers part sun to shade.