Monday, April 22, 2024
PlantsTrees & Shrubs

Garden shrubs

Asian style shrubs

My favorite pastime, when not working or gardening, is traveling! And when I do, I often end up in a gardening zone that is milder than our Canadian ones. On these journeys, certain plants delight me visually and I often return home with short lists of plants and shrubs that I’ll bring to my local garden centre in hopes of duplicating some element of the landscapes I may have seen in B.C., the lower U.S., Europe or Asia. 

In your travels are you attracted to plants that have an Asian or Zen like appearance that you want to ‘bring home’ to your garden? Unfortunately for us, many plants are normally not hardy enough to be used as reliable shrubs in our area. Luckily, there are some useful hardy alternatives that offer that distinctive Asian style. Some of my favorites are…

Trost’s Dwarf Birch (Betula pendula ‘Trost’s Dwarf’).

A small arctic-hardy birch shrub that has delicate looking lacy leaves that will look great in any garden. The green foliage turns a brilliant shade of yellow in autumn. Zone 2. Spread: .9 to 1.5 m (3 to 5 ft.) high by .9 m (3 ft.) wide.

Rock Cotoneaster (Cottoneaster horizontalis).

A low, spreading groundcover with thick ‘wiry’ stems that gnarl and twist horizontally above the ground. Tiny leaves, twisted stems and cherry-red berries make this a delightful ‘surprise’ shrub to place on or near a rock or Buddha garden figure for great effect. Zone 4 to 7. Spread: .3 to .8 m (1 to 2.5 ft.) high by 1.5 to 2.4 m (5 to 8 ft.) wide.

‘Dwarf’ Winged Burning Bush (Euonymus alatus ‘Compactus’).

The ‘winged’ ridges along the plant’s stiff bark give it a one-of-a-kind look in the shrub world. Branching is quite horizontal lending itself to an Asian style. Dark green summer foliage turns into the most fluorescent reddish-colour in the fall. Zone 3b to 8. Spread: 1.5 m (5 ft.) high by 1.5 m (5 ft.) wide.

‘Flame’ Amur Maple (Acer ginnala ‘Flame’).

This version of the Amur Maple has a very intense, bright-red, fall colour. Amur Maple stems gracefully wind and twist in alternating horizontal and vertical directions creating a look that reminds us of small forests in southern Europe or Asia. Zone 2 to 8. Spread: 4.6 to 6 m (15 to 20 ft.) high by 4.6 to 6 m (15 to 20 ft.) wide.

Great Wall Clumping Bamboo (Fargesia nitida ‘Great Wall’).

This thin branched bamboo has outward-arching, slender branches on a dark, purplish cane. It creates dramatic vertical height with an Asian inspiration. It is rated zone 4, so it may only perform well for you if you’ve been previously successful with other zone 4 plants. (This is a non-invasive variety). Spread: 1.5 to 2.4 m (5 to 8 ft.) high by 2.4 to .9 m (8 to 3 ft.) wide.

Morden Golden Glow Elder (Sambucus racemosa ‘Morden Golden Glow’).

Unlike larger elders, this mid-sized elder can find a home in almost any yard. Fine textured, lacy-cut, golden leaves age to a rich green creating a unique two-toned effect. Creamy white flowers in mid-summer are an added bonus! Zone 3. Spread 1.5 m (5 ft.) high by 1.5 m (5 ft.) wide.

Black Lace Elder (Sambucus nigra).

This shrub’s lacy, deep-cut foliage is an intense, purple-black shade. It blooms in midsummer with massive lemon-scented pink flowers. This is more of a zone 4 plant, so it will generally die down closer to ground level over winter, but its hardy roots will regenerate an amazing new plant each season. Spread .9 to 1.8 m (3 to 6 ft.) high by .9 to 1.5 m (3 to 5 ft.) wide.

Sweetfern (Comptonia peregrine).

This small, aromatic rounded shrub has the appearance of a delicate fern. But in reality, it’s not a fern at all. It is a very robust, hardy zone 2 plant that can add an amazing dimension of colour and texture to the garden. It emits a beautiful, forest fragrance when its leaves are brushed. Spread: 1.2 m (4 ft.) high by 1.5 m (5 ft.) wide.

Want to learn more? Visit your local nursery or garden centre to ask about varieties near you. Or go to or where you’ll find amazing plant search engines. Simply search under zen or Asian and start exploring a vast array of plants that will help you design your own Asian garden.

Happy gardening!

Jan Pedersen is a regional representative for Bylands Nurseries and one of the former owners of Shelmerdine Garden Centre.