Best Performing Hardy Shrubs for Northern and Midwest Climates

Best performing, in this case, is not relative to blooming qualities. Although there are many hardy flowering shrubs for the bloom starved northern gardens, shrubs are part of the structure of a garden or landscape. They need to fill sunny, shady, dry, moist or windy areas, and thrive with minimal attention. They may need to provide a backdrop, texture, color, or a transition between garden areas. When selecting shrubs, think carefully about what you are trying to accomplish. Listed here are some of the most reliable hardy deciduous shrubs, which are those with woody branches that typically lose their leaves in winter.

Some of these shrubs you will also find listed as hardy perennials, primarily because their blooming qualities and smaller stature lend themselves well to the northern garden with minimal care.


Flowering Almond: (Prunus glandulosa and trileba) Full sun  Hardy in zones 4-9  Flowering shrub.  Although prunus includes large fruiting trees, there are several species that are the "dwarf" shrubs (dwarf is relative, for a shrub these are not small). They bloom generally in late April before the leaves open. 'Rosplena' has double pink blooms and grows to 5 feet. 'Multiplex' has 1 inch pink 'pompom' blooms and grows to 8 feet. If pruning is required, do it after the blooms have faded for best blooming next year. These two are hardy to zone 4, winter protection is advised.  Cultivars may or may not produce fruit.  Almond will do best in moist well drained soil.  They can be prone to a variety of diseases, as well as mice damage.


Alpine Currant:  (Ribes Alpinum)  Full sun to shade  Hardy in zones 2-7.  Alpine currant is a very popular hedging plant for a number of reasons.  It is very cold hardy and adaptable to a variety of conditions.  It responds very well to frequent shearing to maintain a neat hedge.  And is is quite disease resistant.  Glossy, dark green leaves always look lush and healthy.  Currant prefers moist well drained soil, but will tolerate dryness and alkaline soil, and is very tolerant of wind.  Growth habit it naturally somewhat mounded with slightly horizontal branching.  Male and female plants must be present to produce bright red, midsummer fruit.  Most retail cultivars are male and will not produce fruit.  Grows somewhat slowly, so shearing for a hedge is kept to a minimum.  Will reach 3-5 feet tall and 5-6 feet wide.  ‘Green Mound’ is somewhat smaller, reaching about 3 feet tall and wide.


Amur Maple: (Acer ginnala)  Full sun to part shade  Hardy in zones 3-6.  Hardy and rugged, this large hardy shrub is stunning in fall, turning brilliant yellow and red. it is a clump for shrub that does best in moist, well drained soils, but will tolerate dryness.  ‘Embers’ foliage is the brightest red in autumn.  Can grow to 20 feet high and 20 to 25 feet wide, but prunes well, making the bush more dense. ‘Flame’ is about the same size with clusters of seeds that add winter interest.  Both ‘Embers’ and ‘Flame’ tolerate a wide range of conditions, and make an excellent screen when planted in masses.  ‘Bailey Compact’ is a more compact, finely branched with a rounded form.  Growing only 7-8 feet high and wide, it works well for borders, hedges or foundation plantings.  Fall color is also an excellent scarlet.  ‘Emerald Elf’ is even smaller, 5 to 6 feet high and wide.  It is slow growing with a red-plum fall color.


Amelanchier (Serviceberry, Shadbush):  (Amelanchier canadensis)  Sun, part shade or shade  Hardy in zones 4-8  Flowering shrub This spring blooming shrub has white flowers with a strong upright growth habit.  The form lends itself well to pruning to tree form, or to form hedges or screens.  Fall color is brilliant red.  Reaches a height of 20 feet and 5-8 feet wide.  Amelanchier aninifolia is a smaller, rounded shrub form perfect for border planting or foundations.  White flower clusters appear in early spring, followed by dark fruits that the birds, as well as humans, love (the fruit is sweet and delicious).  Fall color is produced even in shade, from yellow, orange to red.  Aninifolia is hardy in zones 2-7.

Azalea:  (Rhododendron canescens)  Sun to part shade Hardy in zones 4-9.  Flowering shrub  Azalea (Rhododendron) is a shade loving flowering shrub that is easily grown in both shade and part sun.  The spectacular blooming qualities and wide variety of this flowering shrub frequently places it in the garden bed to start the spring perennial show.    Azalea are shallow rooted and should not be planted too deep.  They prefer a cool, moist organic soil and are not tolerant of dry periods, make sure they get enough water.  Rhododendrons and Azalea grow best in moist well drained soils and do require acid.  Acidic fertilizers made for rhododendrons will help, yellowing of the foliage is an indicator of low acid. Azalea is generally hardy for zones 5-9.  The ‘Lights’ series of Azaleas were developed at the University of Minnesota to withstand cold northern winters.  Any of the ‘Lights’ series is cold hardy enough to plant with confidence up to zone 4, and have had great success in zone 3 with minimal damage.  They are just as beautiful in the milder climates!  Rhododendrons continue to grow well into autumn and are susceptible to early freeze damage.  Water thoroughly until the ground freezes to allow the plant to properly acclimate to winter.  Evergreen Azalea and Rhododendron are susceptible to dessication (drying out from winter winds and lack of moisture).  Applications of an anti-transpirant in December and February will help prevent the foliage from drying, turning brown and dropping off. (Also see Rhododendron listings)


‘Golden Lights’ is mildew resistant with golden blooms in late spring.  Clusters of 1 inch golden orange blooms cover the shrub in late spring, and leaves turn bronzy in fall. Easily grown in sun or part shade, with greater mildew resistance than most azalea hybrids.  ‘Golden Lights’ reaches 6 feet high and 5 feet wide in the right conditions, although not usually in zone 4.  Hardy in zones 4-9.


‘Mandarin Lights’ blooms in early spring and is very floriforous.Bright orange blooms are slighlty ruffled and lightly fragrant.  It is a large azalea, 6-8 feet tall and about 4 feet wide, with an upright and rounded growing habit.  Foliage turns bronze in autumn.  Grows well in full to part sun.   Hardy in zones 4-8.


‘Northern Hi-Lights’ is very fragrant, with creamy white flowers that have a yellow upper petal.  Blooms in May to early June.  This azalea grows relatively slowly, reaching about 4 feet high and 5 feet wide.  Foliage is somewhat mildew resistant.  Hardy in zones 4-7.


‘Orchid Lights’ is very cold hardy.  This compact dwarf reaches only 2-3 feet high and wide.  Orchid colored blooms are 1 1/2 “ across and are sterile, so no seed pods are produced.  ‘Orchid Lights’ blooms two weeks before other ‘Lights’ azaleas, in early May.  Grows well in sun to part shade. Hardy in zones 4-7.


‘Rosy Lights’ has very fragrant flowers.  Blooms floriforously with deep rosy pink flowers.  Blooms appear in May to early June.  This is a large azalea that reaches up to 8 feet in ideal conditions, but generally will remain about 5 feet high and 5-6 feet wide.  Grows well in sun to part shade.  Hardy in zones 4-7.


‘Yaku Princess’ is hard to find, and not quite as hardy as ‘Golden Lights’, but may make it in zone 4 with protection.  Blooms are apple blossom pink, maturing to a light blush, in May and June.  It prefers part shade to sun and reaches 3 feet high and 4 feet wide.  Flower buds develop over the summer, so should be protected with snow to preserve the blooms for next spring.  Hardy in zones 5-9.


‘Weston’s Lollipop’ is smaller in size and can do well in zone 4.  ‘Weston’s Lollipop’ has a sweet scent with rich pink blooms with a bold yellow marking.  Bloom time is later than most Azaleas, with blooms sometimes lasting well into summer.  Foliage turns wonderfully red and orange in autumn.  Mildew and pet resistant, it grows well sun to part shade.  Reaches 3’ high and 5’ wide.  Hardy in zones 4-9.


‘Girard’s Crimson’ is one of the hardy, evergreen, Girard’s hybrids.  It produces a spectacular display of rosy red blooms 2 1/2” in diameter in early May.  Glossy green foliage with a dense compact growth, and nice maroon winter color.  It will grow well in part sun to part shade, preferring well drained soil  This compact plant reaches 3 feet high and 2 feet wide.  Hardy in zones 5-8.


‘Girard’s Fuschia’ is also one of the hardy evergreen hybrids.  It produces a stunning display of gorgeous fuschia blooms.  Glossy dark green evergreen foiage turns maroon in fall.  It prefers part sun to part shade.  With a dense, compact growing habit, mature size is 3 feet high and 3-4 feet wide.  Hardy in zones 5-8.


Barberry:  (Barberis thunbergii)  The Japanese Barberry is the most commonly known, and used, barberis.  There are many varieties, but in general they prefer Full sun to part shade and are hardy in zones 4-8.  In shade, the purple cultivars will be more green. Japanese Barberry tolerates a wide range of soil conditions other than very wet and will tolerate dry windy areas.  Because of their small compact growing habit they work well for foundation plantings, borders and specimen plants.  The varieties that get a little larger work well for hedging and thorny barriers.  Deer and rabbits will generally leave these thorny bushes alone, and a dense hedge may deter them from entering.  Barberry transplants well.  Barberry are known to produce sucker shoots, which may not be a problem in a low growing shrub.  Most barberry bear fruits/seeds, which has been causing a problem.  The seeds are spread widely by birds to the point that they barberry have become invasive, crowding out native species.  Those that produce few or no seeds are:  ‘Concorde’, ‘Bonanza Gold’, ‘Kobold’ and ‘Gold Nugget’.


‘Crimson Pygmy’ (Berberis thunbergii atropupurea ‘Crimson Pygmy’)  Full sun to part shade  Hardy in zones 4-7 is widely used in the north because of it’s compact, mounded shape and beautiful deep burgundy red foliage.  It grows to only 2 feet high and 2-3 feet wide, so it works well in small spaces or tucked in around other plantings, adding a nice contrast to greenery.  In shade the foliage is a lighter red to green.  Small spring flowers are barely noticed, and fruit develops that remains through the winter.  ‘Crimson Pygmy has small thorns.


‘Rosy Glow’ (Berberis thunbergii atropupurea ‘Rosy Glow’)  Full sun to part shade  Hardy in zones 4-7  ‘Rosy Glow’ is similar to the ‘Crimson Pygmy’ but is a little larger barberry with brighter burgundy foliage and pink and rosy new growth, that develops burgundy.  It grows to about 3-4 feet high and 2-3 feet wide.  The bright foliage is excellent for a specimen plant, massing or as a low hedge.  The compact growth is also great for foundation plantings where space is limited.  In shade, foliage will be more green.  ‘Rosy Glow’ is also thorny.


‘Golden Nugget’ (Berberis thunberggii ‘Golden Nugget’)  Full sun to part shade  Hardy in zones 4-7.  This is a very small and compact Japanese Barberry that reaches only 12-15” and about 24” wide.  The small golden leaves have orange highlights, and resist sun scorch and disease.  Foliage turns orange in fall.  In part shade to shade, ‘Gold Nugget’ is very drought resistant, and foliage may be more yellow-green.  In full sun it needs more water.  ‘Gold Nugget’ has many thorns to deter pets and deer.  ‘Sunsation’, the larger version of ‘Gold Nugget’, grows to 3’ high and 4’ wide.  The brand new ‘Gold Beret’ is even smaller than the ‘Golden Nugget’, only 6-12” high and wide. Hints of red can be seen in the new growth, foliage turns orange-red in fall. Full sun is best for this drought resistant, scorch resistant dwarf.  Never needs pruning, and is excellent for very small spaces and containers  This may not be available in retail until 2009.

‘Gold Ring’ (Berberis thunbergii atropurpurea ‘Gold Ring’) Full sun to part shade Hardy in zones 4-8  Foliage has red-purple leaves with golden ochre margins, full sun will produce the best color.  The leaves are stunning up close, from a distance ‘Gold Ring’ appears red-burgundy.  Grows to about 4’ high and wide or more, with a rounded form.  Black edible berries are produced, and are quickly eaten by the birds.


Beautybush: (Kolkwitzia amabalis) Full sun  Hardy in zones 5-8.  Flowering shrub.  Excellent large specimen plant if you have room to show off the arching branches of this 10 foot flowering shrub. In June it is covered with thousands of small pink flowers. Beautybush can be pruned to keep small, but loses the beauty of its’ natural form. Grows best in moist, well drained soils.  Each year some old stems should be removed to keep the bush healthy and with good form.


Boxwood:  (Buxus)  Full sun to part shade Hardy in zones 5-8. Boxwood is a dense shrub with emerald waxy evergreen foliage.  The Korean and the English Boxwoods have long been used for hedges, or sheared into a beautiful dense form.  English Boxwood, or common boxwood, is the larger of the two, growing up to 15-20’.  But the hybrids, crossed between Korean and English, have blurred the lines, so look for the hardiness and size that you need.  Buxus sempervirens 'Aureovariegata'  is a tall variety that shears well into a conical shape, reaching 8-10 feet tall and up to 6 feet wide.  It has slightly mottled leaves of yellow and green.  ‘Aureovariegata’ is only hardy to zone 6.  The Green Tower, a columnar Boxwood, is perfect for topiary.  ‘Winter Gem’ is a dwarf form of the common boxwood, but with a little darker mature foliage (new growth is bright) and better cold hardiness. Growth habit is dense and uniformly rounded, reaching about 3 feet.  There are many varieties that a small and rounded, about 2-4’, making them excellent for hedging or foundation plants.  Mulch to keep root systems moist and cool, and the evergreen foliage should be protected from drying winds in winter, causing winter burn and sun scald.Water thoroughly until the ground freezes to allow the plant to properly acclimate to winter.  Evergreen Boxwoods are susceptible to dessication (drying out from winter winds and lack of moisture.  Applications of an anti-transpirant in December and February will help prevent the foliage from drying, turning brown and dropping off.


Most Boxwoods are only hardy to zone 5, so for the more northern gardens, look for the Boxwood Wintergreen, which does well in zone 4 and is less prone to winter discoloration.  It is a Korean Boxwood requiring full sun to part shade and is hardy in zones 4-9.  The foliage is a yellow green.  It has a dense rounded form that reaches 2-4 feet high and 3-5 feet wide.  ‘Green Velvet’ is also hardy in zones 4-9.  Growth habit is low and rounded with dark green foliage year round, but not quite as large as the ‘Wintergreen’.  Height is 2-3 feet and width about 3 feet.  ‘Green Mountain’ is a wonderful conical shaped boxwood that is also hardy in zones 4-7.  The shape is natural, but may require minor shearing to maintain a ‘perfect’ form.  The small bright green leaves are evergreen.  ‘Green Mountain’ grows quickly in its’ early years, eventually reaching about 4 feet high and 3 feet wide.


Boxwood are a pretty maintenance free deciduous evergreen unless you prefer to maintain perfect form by shearing.  They require average water and grow fairly slowly.  Both sandy and clay soils of average pH of slightly alkaline to acidic is acceptable.  Select a site protected from winter winds to avoid winter burn and winter afternoon shaded to avoid sun scald.  Water thoroughly until the ground freezes to allow the plant to properly acclimate to winter.  Evergreen Boxwoods are susceptible to dessication (drying out from winter winds and lack of moisture.  Applications of an anti-transpirant in December and February will help prevent the foliage from drying, turning brown and dropping off.  If using granular fertilizer, keep it off the foliage and away from stems and trunk.



Burning Bush: (Euonymus alatus) Part to full sun  Hardy in zones 4-8.  A colorful hardy shrub in fall it has deep emerald leaves that look rich and healthy all summer with little attention. Branches arch slightly giving the shrub a graceful look.  The dwarf can get 4-6 feet tall but can be trimmed. When grown in full sun, the leaves turn blazing red in fall. The large form of the ‘Burning Bush’ reaches a height and spread of 10-15 feet, and will prune to a striking tree, especially in fall. Adding to the winter interest is a bark of corky “wings”, that will catch and hold snow that sunlight sparkles from. Grow in full sun for best fall color.  This Euonymus is commonly referred to as ‘Burning Bush’, also see Winter Creeper Euonymus fortunei listed separately.  The bark and young stems of Euonymus are susceptible to rabbit and rodent damage in winter.  Wrap the stems/trunk with a collar or hardware cloth available at garden centers to protect them.


Butterfly Bush: (Buddleia) Full sun to part shade Hardy in zones 4-9.  Flowering shrub.  Touted as easily grown, the butterfly bush seems to require a little more luck or expertise in most northern gardens. Although generally hardy to zone 5, 'Adonis Blue' and 'Strawberry Lemonade' can be successful in zone 4.  ‘Mary’s White’ and ‘Rice Creek’ have survived zone 4 winters with no winter mulch at all, so those are excellent selections for the coldest of regions.  ‘Royal Red’ is probably the most widely grown butterfly bush in zones 5 and warmer.  The fragrant violet red blooms are quite stunning.   ‘Adonis Blue’ is a dwarf version of ‘Black Knight’, growing to about 3-5’, and is covered with enormous midnight blue blooms from early summer to early fall.  ‘Strawberry Lemonade’ has foliage that starts out edged in bright yellow, maturing to cream.  6 inch pink blooms cover the bush all summer.  ‘Honeycomb’, hardy to zone 5, is an 8-12 foot shrub covered with 12 inch spikes of yellow blooms from late summer through fall.  Many northern gardeners prize the butterfly bush for its' long and prolific blooms, attracting butterflies and supplying endless cut flowers. For best blooming, prune back to live wood in early spring, as the bush does die back at least partially in the north.   Buddleia that are zone 4 hardy should still be heavily mulched to ensure the roots are protected.  In regions that drop below -38 degrees, further protection of all Buddleia is advised, treating the plant almost like a hybrid tea rose.  Mound several inches of soil at the base of the plant, and mulch heavily.  Requires full sun and well drained soil.  And although many Butterfly Bush are drought tolerant, the plant becomes significantly wilted and looks unsightly without adequate moisture. Many gardeners have great success with Butterfly Bush in the right conditions, so it is definitely worth a try in your garden.


Bridalwreath: (Spiraea x vanhouttei) Full sun  Hardy in zones 4-8  Flowering shrub.  Another super hardy, large flowering shrub with distinct arching branches that makes an excellent specimen plant if you have the room. It grows 6-8 feet and spreads to 12 feet and is covered with white blooms in spring. Full sun produces the most flowers, but will grow well in some shade. Prune back up to one third every year after blooming for best blooming next year. Will adapt to most soils, but prefers well drained. The leaves turn plum-green in fall. Hardy to zone 4 with good results in zone 3.