Compact Shrubs with Colorful Foliage for the Southeast

Winter is a great time to look outside and evaluate the structure of your landscape. It can be easier during this time of year to tell if you need a few more woodies to add structural support. Small shrubs in particular have a lot of utility in gardens. They fit perfectly in beds and borders and can be used in tight spaces where more presence than a perennial is warranted. Here are a few smaller shrubs with impressive foliage that have worked well for us in the Southeast.

Candy Corn® Japanese spirea’s new spring growth is a bright yellow-orange.

Candy Corn® Japanese spirea

Spiraea japonica ‘NCSX1’, Zones 4–8

Candy Corn® Japanese spirea is so bright and cheerful that it almost doesn’t seem real. Its foliage during the growing season is chartreuse but the orange-red new growth in spring makes it truly spectacular. Once the new growth turns yellow-green, the shrub produces clusters of bright pink flowers. Growing to about 1 to 1½ feet tall and 1½ to 2½ feet wide, Candy Corn® is fairly drought tolerant and sturdy, taking full sun to partial shade. The flowers make it popular with pollinators, especially butterflies. A trim in late summer prompts a flush of fabulous new growth for fall. Best of all, this cultivar is sterile, which allays invasiveness concerns.

Margie Jenkins leucothoe
The delicate white flowers of ‘Margie Jenkins’ leucothoe contrast well with its dark green foliage.

‘Margie Jenkins’ leucothoe

Leucothoe axillaris ‘Margie Jenkins’, Zones 5–9

The dark green leaves and arching stems on ‘Margie Jenkins’ leucothoe are very attractive. This multistemmed shrub can reach 2 to 5 feet tall and 3 to 5 feet wide. It will spread a bit from the base as it produces new stems. ‘Margie Jenkins’ is a selection of a southeastern native species that is resistant to the leaf spot that plagues the species. This shrub tolerates full sun if kept consistently moist but looks better with bright shade or morning sun and afternoon shade. It can also take full shade. Once established, it is somewhat drought tolerant but very tolerant of wet feet. In spring, racemes of white, bell-shaped flowers appear, followed by bronze-colored new growth.

Radiance abelia
‘Radiance’ abelia features stunning yellow and white variegation on its foliage, which can also be tinted red and orange during other times of the year.

‘Radiance’ abelia

Abelia ‘Radiance’, Zones 6–9

‘Radiance’ abelia has small leaves that are variegated. The cream and green foliage remains for most of the year and turns orange in winter. White clusters of flowers appear in the summer. The light-colored foliage and flowers make this shrub really stand out against darker green plants. The blooms are very popular with pollinators and have a sweet fragrance. ‘Radiance’ is showiest when grown in full sun, but it will also take partial shade. It will grow 2 to 3 feet tall and 4 to 5 feet wide. The new growth that appears in spring and often again after flowering is tinted red.

Cinnamon Girl distylium
Cinnamon Girl® distylium’s pretty teal foliage has an intriguing ovate shape.

Cinnamon Girl® distylium

Distylium ‘PIIDIST-V’, Zones 7–9

Cinnamon Girl® distylium features evergreen foliage on branches that grow up and out, reaching 2 to 3 feet tall and 3 to 4 feet wide. The foliage is a lovely blue-green, while new growth is a showy reddish purple. In early spring, tiny red flowers are produced all along the branches. This shrub grows nicely in full sun. It will also take partial shade but will have a looser growth habit. The best thing about it is that it’s tough. Cinnamon Girl® can handle hot summers, drought, and pruning mistakes. However, it looks best with regular watering and yearly fertilizer.

There are so many great plants to choose from out there that it can be hard to narrow down the choices. These are a few compact shrubs that we’ve been successful with in the Southeast, and all have interesting foliage to boot. Any one of these plants will have the neighbors asking about that wonderful bush in your yard.

For more compact shrubs, check out Shrubs for Small Spaces in the South. And for more Southeast regional reports, click here.

Jason and Shelley Powell own and manage Petals From the Past, a garden center in Jemison, Alabama.

Photos: Shelley Powell


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