Take Five: Forgiving Shrubs for Sun

 A friend of mine recently used the phrase "moving target" to describe the boundaries of what thrives in our gardens. Another used the phrase "climate change laboratories" to describe what our gardens have become. As I am still steadfastly stubborn as hell and refuse to give up my gardening goals, I am in search of what hits the target. Plants that, thus far, have provided beauty, habitat, health and vigor to the garden throughout the past eight years (and beyond). 

While at one time I may have been more willing to go to great lengths to care for a plant, those efforts are often thwarted by climate extremes. For example, I sincerely believe that some of the long-term effects of record high 116 degrees in 2021 are only now beginning to manifest. Issues are arising. My willingness to care for plants is still there, but it's spread thin as my energies are required elsewhere in the form of clean-up, fixing, re-doing parts of the garden that have seen the worst of it. No time to baby every plant. But, not all is grim. There are still options. While this may change in the future, from what I observe today, these are some serious winners in my little plant world.

Here then is a short list of five of the most resilient shrubs for sun in my garden today. I will also write posts about shrubs for shade and of perennials to round out a quick and dirty "take five" series for 2023. We all love plants and we all want successes. These are mine. And while you may live in a different region and/or these may or may not do well for you, I think it's important to get the conversation going and share information. We're all in this climate-change laboratory together.

The arctos! The arctos! Arctostaphylos are, for certain, the best of the best. Now I know not everyone across the US and beyond can successfully grow these, but if you can, you should. Evergreen shrubs, small trees and in the case of a few small ones, groundcovers, if grown well are incredibly rewarding. What I mean by "grown well" is that they want great drainage, unamended soil, air circulation and water at the appropriate time. Like any plant they need water to get established, just don't do it in the heat of the day. Hot plus wet soil = disaster. Let them dry out between waterings if in a container. Water them in the cool of the morning, on an overcast day or in the cool of the evening if they indeed do require it. An established plant does fine with what falls from the sky, so no summer irrigation required. That is an excellent point. I use gravel or rocks for a mulch for it helps keep the leaves clean by preventing splash on soils that might have pathogens. It has worked well in my garden. 

Pictured is Arctostaphylos pumila, one of my favorites. It is a shrub form at about 5' tall and wide, one of the first to bloom in late winter. I don't think these are particularly suited to the "limbing up" to expose branches, rather they look smart as a rounded shrub.

The lower growing form is Arctostaphylos 'Pacific Mist', a great low spreading plant with rather blue-ish foliage. It tolerates some shade. Above it is a more green-leaved Arctostaphylos 'Harmony', more upright, although my specimen tends to lean southward.

Another reason to love this West Coast native plant is its exfoliating bark. It also provides an important early source of sustenance for our native bees in its very early flowers. 

On the left is Arctostaphylos 'Sentinel' and on the right is Arctostaphylos manzanita 'Saint Helena'. 

Also in my garden but not pictured here are:
A x . 'Austin Griffiths'
A. bakeri 'Louis Edmunds'
A. x densiflora 'Howard McMinn'
A. uva-ursi
Arctostaphylos silvicola 'Ghostly'
Arctostaphylos x densiflora 'John Dourley'
Arctostaphylos auriculata. 'Knobcone Point'
A. glauca

A few great sources for plants are Cistus Nursery, Xera Plants, Dancing Oaks Nursery, Las Pilitas Nursery, One Green World, among many others. Feel free to chime in on the comments section if you know of others.

This sad looking specimen is Baccharis pilularis, coyote bush, one of many species in this genus. This one, another evergreen shrub for sun, is so forgiving that when many branches broke off in a late season ice storm a couple of years ago, it got pruned to what you see here. Ouch.

Fast forward a mere two or three months later to this, the same plant indeed. It wins the award for most forgiving and quickest to recover a hard prune. Not bad for an evergreen shrub that receives zero supplemental water. 

Its odd little flowers are a treat for pollinators. In addition to B. pilularis, I have a few other smaller species waiting to go into the ground this autumn when the rains arrive. So, besides the massive pruning this plant received after bad winter damage, I have done nothing to it and it generally looks good, makes up a part of a screening hedge at the edge of our property, so is excellent for hedgerows and sunny, difficult sites. It may not be glamorous enough as a specimen plant, it has its place in my garden.

I know of two sources for this shrub - Cistus Nursery and Bosky Dell Natives, although there are certainly others out there.

Junipers are kind of a sleeper plant. They aren't very exciting when small but once settled in and mature they look great and are such tough survivors. I never water them and they keep on looking great with no issues of winter damage nor summer burn. This is Juiperus conferta 'Blue Pacific', a low, spreading form that winds its way around other plants without smothering them. I also have Juniperus communis 'Hoodview' from Xera Plants and it is very similar in both appearance and toughness.

An upright version, Juniperus communis 'Compressa' gets a little larger and a lot better every year. I have not featured either of these on the blog much, but that's not for lack of beauty and ease of care, just not that exciting to most eyes. I finally decided these, after many years of neglect and drought but with consistently great looks, are worthy of featuring. Fairly easy to find, too.

Tea trees or leptospermum are evergreen shrubs and small trees native to Australia, New Zealand and parts of Southeast Asia. There are some 90 species of this plant, many of which are well-suited to the West Coast garden palette. The honey that comes from visiting bees is known as Manuka honey.

Pictured is Leptospermum namadgiensis in a rather dry part of the garden pictured last autumn. I have seen it listed as growing to 6 - 8' tall, however my specimen is only about 4' tall and that's just perfect for me. Never receiving summer water (occasionally from surrounding plants but never directly), it has proven to be very drought adapted (once established). 

Detail of its rather lovely foliage and flowers. I have propagated a few to add more to other parts of the garden, it's so good.

Leptospermum grandiflorum is another drought-adapted species for me - it is much larger than the former, however. It is great as part of a mixed hedge/hedgerow in a sunny site.

A rather unusual species, Leptospermum humifusum (prostrate form) from Desert Northwest Nursery. It is still relatively small and was planted here several years ago to eventually drape down the retaining wall. While it hasn't reached that goal it is certainly charming and has withstood all manner of plant hardships, including being planted next to a concrete wall that doesn't drain.

A few other leptospermum in the garden but not pictured are Leptospermum lanigerum 'Silver Form', Leptospermum scoparium 'Red Ensign' (new this year) and I plan on adding Leptospermum sericeum and Leptospermum scoparium 'Washington Park' this autumn.

A few sources for leptos are Xera Plants, Cistus Nurser and Far Reaches Farm among others.

Oh, the ever-boring, readily available spiraea. Not boring to me, however. I do love them so! Why? They are some of the last to lose their foliage in autumn (or winter) and among the first to burst forth with activity in late winter. They never ask for water in even the driest of summers, although they seem delicate. Their flowers can be bright gaudy pink or subtle white shades and the variety in this genus is excellent. Many have outstanding autumn coloration of their leaves. They don't seem to outgrow their spaces and can be pruned pretty hard if they do get a little leggy. They don't seem to have any special soil requirements and survive whatever winter breakage their stems might suffer (though, breakage has been rare for me). Pictured is Spiraea thunbergii 'Ogon' in a warm greenish yellow tone. It shows up so well against other foliage colors, I should have this everywhere.

The same shrub pictured in late winter with both flowers and new foliage emerging simultaneously. This is only completely bare in mid-winter for a couple of weeks, the rest of the year foliage and/or flowers are present.

Spiraea douglasii, our native "hardhack" shrub with cheerful terminal clusters of pink flowers. This is a large one at about 6' tall, really pretty at the back of the border, but it can spread and overpower other plants so plant accordingly. It grows wild along waterways in our region and is an excellent choice for a rain garden. I have several of these in a wild area that I allow to grow as large and as wide as is possible. I forget about them, actually, so they never receive summer water and are adapted beautifully even though I see them in wet areas in the wild as mentioned. A fantastic no-fuss hedgerow or wild garden plant, it asks nothing of me and gives a lot, especially to pollinators when in bloom.

Are you all tired of me harping on about Spiraea betulifolia var. lucida yet? This is another native spiraea but much smaller at about 2 - 3' tall and wide with white umbelliferous flowers. Its water requirements are low once established, however it takes and appreciates water.

It also has fantastic autumn coloring so is a three-season plant. 

So pretty! This, like other spiraeas can also take some shade but I think the best coloration is when they are sited in more sun. Because of its relatively small size it is easy to tuck into even the smallest garden. I purchased mine from Echo Valley Natives years ago.

Spiraeas also do well in some shade. This is Spiraea japonica 'Dart's Red' in quite a bit of shade and it still has some nice foliage coloration pictured here towards the end of autumn.

While there are many more shrubs for sun that are fantastic and resilient, these five genera have had really no issues, no weird dieback, no diseases I can detect, are low maintenance (if any) and don't require pruning. I mean cotinus or smokebushes for example are nearly on this list (and for sure a favorite with very low water requirements, great autumn coloration), however a couple have had some possible verticillium wilt die back on random branches. While the shrub recovered and looks great, I am mindful to watch for this disease again so there's a little extra maintenance to consider for my own garden.

A few others that are good in some sun to partial shade that deserve mention are Lonicera nitida and its cultivars. I have Lonicera nitida 'Red Tips', 'Lemon Beauty', 'Twiggy', 'Baggesen's Gold', 'Silver Beauty' and 'Briloni'. They are evergreen, easily clipped into whatever shape you wish, tolerate shade too, require no special soil nor amendments, require no supplemental water in my garden. Abelia 'Francis Mason' is also evergreen, easily pruned if needed, no extra summer water, no special requirements and always looks great. Osmanthus should flat out be on this list but I've reached the limit of five. I also understand some folks find they are not entirely hardy, however in my 7b (I err on the side of caution with my USDA zones) they have been entirely hardy, evergreen, so pretty year-round, very forgiving of any number of soil types and water requirements. Plus their flowers are often very fragrant. I have the following species/cultivars in my garden: Osmanthus delavayiOsmanthus fragrans aurantiacus 'Beni Kin Mokusei', Osmanthus heterophyllus 'Purpurea', Osmanthus heterophyllus 'Rotundifolia', Osmanthus heterophyllus 'Sasaba', Osmanthus heterophyllus 'Goshiki' and Osmanthus x fortunei 'San Jose'.

That's a good solid group of shrubs for sun for me here at Chickadee Gardens. Moving target - these have all proven to hit the mark every time. Alright, next time we'll look at some shade options that are extremely low maintenance with great looks and resiliency. 

That's a wrap for this week! Thank you so much for reading and commenting, we do love hearing from you and what has done well in your garden. What are your "take five" shrubs for sun? Do share in the comments! We'd love to keep the conversation going.


  1. Great post! I think we all have an ongoing list of the toughest of the tough that keeps changing each year. The required traits to make the list are a bit different for everyone I'd imagine-- like for me, I would agree with all your traits but also add tolerance of deer, rabbits and arctic wind. Many on your list get fried in the winter wind for me. I think only the Spiraea and Junipers work here. My current top shrubs for sun then are most conifers (except Thuja which is deer candy) but they do need some protection from bucks rutting in the fall only when young), Caryopteris, and Osmanthus (is there really such a thing as a limit? LOL). I have limited full sun so here's a couple for part-sun to round out my list: Pieris, Mahonia, and the larger leaved Rhodies (but not the extra-large :-). There are many more that I'm still trialing and hopeful they'll make the long-term grade. Time (and weather!) will tell. Can't wait to see what you have for the rest of the series!

    1. The list does indeed change, but these have been on the list throughout. You're right, the requirements are different for us all - critter activity is indeed a HUGE factor for many people. Thank you for pointing that out. And your wind! Living in the Columbia River Gorge has its challenges with weather, for sure. I'm surprised caryopteris are on your list, but each garden is so different. I love them, they just need more and more water as we get drier and drier. They started out as super drought adapted but sulk now in hot dry spells. Osmanthus - YES, they are rock stars as far as I'm concerned. Pieris and mahonias yes - they'll feature in a future post ;)

  2. Jeanne DeBenedetti Keyes2:05 PM PDT

    Great list! I would add mahonia, both native and Asian species. Lovely foliage (if spiky), great flowers during winter, early spring. Although M. aquifolium does run!

    1. Oh, indeed, Jeanne! Stay tuned....I think you'll see these will be featured soon!

  3. I'm very fond of Leptospermum but Baccharis and Junipers have never appealed to me. Although I like them, I've got only one Arctostaphylos, possibly because I have 4 Arbutus which are similar in some respects. I admire Spirea every time I see them but I can't remember ever finding plants in this genus offered locally; however, many aren't recommended for my Sunset zone 24 and SoCal nurseries seem to avoid offering buyers deciduous plants. Large shrubs that aren't on your list but that do very well in my climate include most Grevilleas, Leucadendrons, and Leucospermums.

    1. Ah, junipers aren't for everyone. As far as spiraeas, I'm surprised they aren't easy to find, but SoCal is a completely different plant palette. They are so ubiquitous here, I can't imagine not seeing them. There is one, Spiraea j. 'Bullata' - it's super dwarf and tough as nails as in rock garden, as in no-water tough. Far Reaches carries it if you're interested. I love all your shrubs listed, and grevilleas are certainly favorites here when they are hardy (which is hit and miss).

  4. A nice group of tough shrubs. I love those ones that you can always count on to perform. When I was a child we had big bushes at the back of our wild field with fluffy pink flowers. Loved them. Seeing your photo of Spirea douglasii I belive this is what they were. Finally an answer to a very old question.

    1. Me too, Elaine - love the ones we can count on to perform. I'm also glad you discovered the name of your big bushes from childhood. Isn't that fun when it happens? Cheers!

  5. All of those shrubs have done well in our zone 7b too, except that some of the Arctostaphylos struggle and look terrible all winter in our garden - we don't have the air circulation to keep the leaf spots down because we're located on a northeast facing hill that drains into a creek at the bottom of our property. Pacific Mist, for example, was a total dog even in our rock garden with rock mulch. It was covered in ugly spots for at least half of the year. But, Sentinel with much different parentage and more open form has done fine in the same area.

    Baccharis pilularis, also amazing, no issues, we have one that came from cuttings from up behind the house. Junipers - a long time childhood favorite. Leptospermum rupestre has done extremely well, but L. namadgiensis needs protection underneath tree canopy in our yard to survive. Trying L. cunninghamii this fall for the first time. Spiraeas are a definite yes. Lonicera nitida also a yes. Weirdly, Osmanthus has been a strong no. We've tried several species and varieties and they all just slowly decline over time with lots of branch dieback.

    1. Hi Jerry....yes, air circulation for arctos - that's a good point. I'm surprised though that 'Pacific Mist' didn't do well, it usually is marketed as a part shade loving plant. Interesting observations! I'm glad to hear the others - Baccharis, Leptospermum, Spiraeas, Lonicera nitida, Juniperus are on your radar, too. Too bad about the Osmanthus being a NO! Darn!! Thanks for your comments, it's interesting to see what does well for everyone.

  6. Anonymous7:55 AM PDT

    It's easier to accommodate large shrubs in a large garden. I'd love to grow an Arctostaphylos but even the smaller ones are too large for my garden, certainly at this stage of maturity. I've grown both Spiraea and Lonicera nitida 'Baggesen's Gold' but they wanted to get bigger, I didn't :-D It was too much effort in the end so they had to go.
    But with junipers it's a different story. I love conifers. Juniper Blue star is a favorite of mine: slow growing and well, Blue! The garden does get watered during the summer, but I bet those lovelies would just find with less water.
    Last year I scored Juniperus communis 'Compressa': less than a foot long, but I enjoy seeing it grow and appreciate its slimness even when mature.
    Looking forward to the next list of hassle-free plants.

    1. Oh, indeed, large shrubs for large gardens. Too bad you can't grow an arcto, but we can't grow everything. Spiraea and Lonicera - though they CAN be pruned, if one doesn't wish to do so then yes, out they go....

      Junipers are a surprising plant crush for me. Growing up they were everyone's horrible hedge but now I see them in a new light. Glad you enjoy them too, Chavli!

  7. I do have a couple spirea that I love for their fall color, and preying mantis seem to love to leave their eggs in the spirea. Am I understanding that yours are only bare for 2 weeks?! I'm much warmer here - and although they do leaf/bloom out very early, mine I think are bare longer than that? Maybe just different varieties?

    1. How interesting about the preying mantis! I'll have to pay attention. My Spiraea t. 'Ogon' is the one spiraea that is only bare for two weeks, the others, to be fair, are more like a month but they aren't long without any signs of life. It is definitely different varieties. Thanks for pointing that out.

  8. Anonymous6:09 PM PDT

    What is the flammability of these five plants? Ashland, Oregon bans the planting of many plants near structures. This is going to become an important topic.

    1. Gosh, I have no idea, Anonymous. It is a good point, though - especially for gardeners in your area and south to California. Well, everywhere, really. I see a lot of literature out there on the topic that have many lists of what to plant and what to avoid - but I see some discrepancies. I think I'm not qualified to speak on the matter but feel free to share whatever resources you think are good ones. I would say that keeping plants away from the home for several feet is a great first step.

  9. Great list! The die-hards, for sure. Appreciate your including the Osmanthus!


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