Ten Under-Utlizied Shrubs

If you’ve ever listened to my radio program, you know that there are some plants that just have problem after problem, year after year. But you can eliminate many of those problems if you’ll start incorporating plants/shrubs that don’t have all those insect and disease pressures. It is in my humble opinion that if everyone planted the majority of their landscapes in the shrubs I’m about to recommend I might just put my call-in radio show out of business. That’s because this upcoming list of “underutilized plants” won’t have near the problems that the “over-utilized” plants have in our climate. You may not entirely agree with my list.

Nevertheless, this is MY list and one that I’ve put together after years of hearing complaints about the “most over-utilized” shrubs. (Examples of the overused shrubs are Red Tip Photinias and Ligustrums.) What I hope to accomplish with this list, is to make you well armed when re-doing a landscape or putting in a brand new one this year. Thus, you may be looking for something different this year that isn’t disease-prone, insect-prone nor will it be high-maintenance. Without further ado... I give you the...


ELAEAGNUS– If you’re looking for a screen plant, look no further. The Elaeagnus (I find it spelled Eleagnus too) makes a perfect hedge row that doubles as a screen plant rather quickly. It is also drought tolerant, and can seemingly put up with water and temperature extremes that no mere mortal shrub can handle. This also means that for the most part, this is a sun-loving plant. But the most important aspect of the Elaeagnus is the silvery (sometimes brown) dots that cover the leaves, reflecting sunlight to give the plants a special sparkle. I mentioned earlier that it is drought tolerant; so much so that once established after 2 years, it can actually survive with no additional irrigation.

TEXASWAX MYRTLE– If you’ve ever been around the Woodlands or around Conroe you know the Texas Wax Myrtle, and you may have even smelled one. I can’t make up my mind what I like best about the Wax Myrtle. Is it the expedient growth, the wonderful scent, or its imperviousness to disease? There are lots of things to love about this plant. The scent varies, but in most cases has sort of a spicy orange aroma. The Wax Myrtle always seems to have lustrous evergreen leaves, and can seemingly grow a couple of feet every year. It can be shaped, but when left alone the Wax Myrtle provides a random hedge like no other. And this plant can be grown in total sun or filtered light.

LORAPETALUM– The Lorapetalum that we have come to love for landscape shrubs in the Southern reaches of Texas is commonly referred to as the Chinese Fringe Flower. Besides the stunningly bright pink blooms that have become so synonymous with the Lorapetalum, I personally love the fact that it seems to have contradictory maintenance attributes. That means, if you want to keep it trimmed like a hedge, then do so. If you want to train the Lorapetalum like a vine, then do it. If you want to leave it be and let the lorapetalum form arching or drooping tiers of branches, then do it. For my Aggie Brethren out there, the next best thing about the Chinese Fringe Flower would have to be the unique purple to filtered light situations.

COPPERTONELOQUAT– This is one of those plants that gets a little too confused with Red Tips, but doesn’t have the same disease problems. The Coppertone Loquat was derived from the Bronze Loquat, which provided for a rather coppery- bronze-looking leaf at the top of the plant ala a red tip photinia. Coppertone Loquats also have a creamy white burst of flowers in early spring. And while they can be trained on espaliers, and while they thrive in sunny, warm environments, they should not be on a hot, west-facing wall. Nevertheless, Coppertone Loquats must be in total sunshine.

VIBURNUM- Viburnums are versatile, dependable and interesting in all seasons of the year. If you select the right species you can have a wealth of fragrant white flowers in the spring, glossy green leaves during the summer, attractive autumn foliage and bright-colored fruits in late summer and fall. Viburnums are sturdy shrubs and easy to grow. Viburnums are virtually pest free, except for attacks by aphids. Viburnums can be used as specimen shrubs or small trees or in border plantings as they range from small to very large. If properly located, the shrub should need only moderate pruning to retain a desirable form.

NANDINA– Also known as Heavenly Bamboo. I love Nandina, mainly because it does well in both sun and semi- shady situations. This makes it versatile, plus it’s virtually pest free. The one draw back is that it does have to be cut back quite often. However, if you give the Nandina enough room it can grow 6 feet tall. I like it kept at a 3 to 4 ft. range. It belongs to the barberry family but is reminiscent of bamboo in its lightly branched, cane-like stems and delicate, fine- textured leaves. During the winter, it gets reddish, maroon and golden colors to add to its attractiveness. Warning: I don’t like the miniature Nandinas and that’s because their leaves always looked gnarled. Stay with Nandina Domestica to be safe. Or if you like the gnarled leaves go with the compactas.

SAGO PALMS– This is where I’m also sure to get some disagreement. There are probably a few of you mumbling under your breath that the Sago Palm is “over-utilized” right now. I think not! And here’s why. The Sago is one of the most versatile accent shrubs we can plant. The Sago can succeed in total sunshine and total shade, and everything in between. If you will keep the pups trimmed and the soil well fed, the Sago will reward you with what I call a rather majestic flourish year after year. But keep the pups/sports trimmed constantly, or it looks awful as the pups push the fronds around from their natural arching position.

NEEDLEPOINTHOLLY AND NELLIE STEVENS HOLLY– This is another one of those all-purpose plants that can survive shade or sun. But, for sure, the best thing about needlepoint hollies is that they don’t hurt you the way old fashioned holly bushes do. Needlepoint Hollies only have one point on the very end and are infinitely more supple than their more painful cousin. It also has another close cousin it gets mistaken for quite often in the Burford Holly. But the Needlepoint has a more supple leaf than the Burford too. The way to truly tell the difference is the Burford leaf is cupped down. Some people often call the Needlepoint (I think mistakenly) a Chinese Holly. Nevertheless, it makes a great hedge shrub in both sun and shady environments. The Nellie Stevens Holly is a great “accent” tree that won’t get too big. It also produces berries that attract birds. But the big difference obviously is size. The Nellie Stevens Holly is almost always a small tree, whereas the Needlepoint Holly is a medium sized shrub.

NATALPLUM– While this may sound new to some folks, the Natal Plum has been around for a while, but forgotten. The Natal Plum is a fast-growing, upright, rounding shrub with beautiful leathery, rich, green leaves and small spines. The Natal Plum also has fragrant, white flowers that look hauntingly like jasmine flowers. But the Natal Plums also have a unique red, plum-shaped edible fruit. These wonderful babies tolerate poor soil, heat and drought (Sounds perfect for here don't they?) And if you want to see them in all their glory, head to Galveston Island where they are all over the place, especially in front the restaurants Gaidos and Tortugas. Problem is - yep, you knew there had to be a problem - is that they just aren't that readily available.

JAPANESEBLUEBERRY (SHOGUN SERIES)- The Japanese is one of those newer plants that is gaining in popularity. And watch for it this year locally at most of the full service nurseries, mainly because some growers like Houston Plants & Garden World, locally, and Monrovia Nurseries have put it on a fast track. Despite its name the Japanese Blueberry Tree, Shogun Series is not a fruit producing blueberry tree, so just wipe that out of your head now. From a distance it looks similar to a Coppertone Loquat, but it grows more upright. It's very popular in the western states as a street, lawn or park tree- bronzy new growth then glossy green foliage. There's an ornamental effect from older leaves turning bright red before dropping. It has numerous tiny scented white flowers and blue-black, olive-like fruit in winter. Yes, this is an evergreen that requires full sun. It can reach 35 feet tall and 20 feet wide, but with some consistent pruning you can keep it shorter and thinner.

Until next week, here's to Great Gardening from the GardenLine, heard exclusively weekend mornings from 8 to noon on Talkradio 950 KPRC.

Randy Lemmon is the host of the GardenLine radio program on Newsradio 740 KTRH. Randy has been doing GardenLine in one capacity or another since December of 1995, for all three of the now Clear Channel AM stations - KTRH, KPRC & KBME. When Randy took over GardenLine, he replaced long-time Houston radio veteran and GardenLine originator, Bill Zak. For those who remember that far back, GardenLine was a weekly radio staple on KTRH from 10 a.m. to Noon Mondays through Fridays - along with a Saturday show as well. Now GardenLine is heard exclusively on Newsradio 740 KTRH on weekend mornings.