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Shrubs are perennial woody plants, and therefore have persistent woody stems above ground (compare with herbaceous plants). Usually shrubs are distinguished from trees by their height and multiple stems. Some shrubs are deciduous (e.g. hawthorn) and others evergreen (e.g. holly). Ancient Greek philosopher Theophrastus divided the plant world into trees, shrubs and herbs.

Homeowners new to the task of plant selection may be overwhelmed by all of the types of shrubs there are to choose from. With so many choices available, how does one know where to begin in making an intelligent selection? It can help to start with the basic shrub categories and what they tell you about plant behavior.

Botanical Categories

The various types of shrubs available for landscaping fall roughly into three botanical categories:

Deciduous bushes
Broadleaf evergreens
Needled evergreens

These categories are more than just a fun way for scholars to organize things. There are practical differences between these groupings that hold meaning for the homeowner. For example, if you want a shrub that has showy flowers, you should select a plant from the deciduous or broadleaf categories. Or, if you're looking for a shrub that provides some visual interest at all times of the year, you will find this either in the broadleaf category or the needled category, because it is the evergreen shrubs that hold onto their leaves throughout all four seasons.

Notice that broadleaf evergreens represent something of a sweet spot, potentially offering both showy blooms and foliage that does not quit. In reality, however, the choices within this category that live up to this ideal can be rather limited.

Choosing a Shrub for Your Yard

Taking the above examples a bit further, is the preference for a bush with showy flowers over one that holds onto its leaves all year (or vice versa) merely a matter of taste? Not really. Sometimes, there is a practical reason behind the preference.

If you are looking to install a privacy screen consisting of living plants, then you will want plants that keep their leaves year-round. Otherwise, neighbors would have a clear view of your property during the winter. In this instance, evergreen shrubs are a clear choice.

But in other circumstances, instead of an emphasis on restricting the public's gaze, your focus may be on just the opposite: namely, on attracting attention to your landscaping. You may desire a shrub that says, "Look at me, look at me!" When it is a real attention-grabber—a specimen plant—that you want, then you're probably looking for something with showy flowers. Frequently, you get a two-for-one deal with the deciduous shrubs: a floral showcase in spring and a fall-foliage showcase in autumn.

Common Shrubs From Each Botanical Category

For beginners, often it is most helpful to look at representative examples of plants in each shrub category.

Deciduous Shrubs

Korean spice viburnum:
This one is a "triple threat," sporting flowers in spring that are fragrant as well as pretty, plus nice fall color.
'Blue Chip' butterfly bush: These make your property the go-to spot in the neighborhood for colorful butterflies; listed as a non-invasive type.
'Goldflame' and 'Gold Mound' spireas: These won't let you forget the importance of spring foliage!

Broadleaf Evergreens

Stewartstonian azalea: This is an example of a broadleaf evergreen that gives you both a spring display of flowers and good fall color.
Mountain laurel: These are prized by native-plant enthusiasts of the northeastern USA as "one of their own," with showy flowers to boot.
Holly plants: These are essential shrubs for those in love with "all things Christmas".

Needled Evergreens

Yew bushes: This is a plant that you can grow just about anywhere, thanks to its toughness.
Canadian hemlock: Grown as a shrub rather than as a tree, these can be used to make an outstanding privacy hedge.
'Gold Mops' false cypress: There's no need to settle for green when you can have gold.