Tony's 20 "Must Have" Trees & Shrubs

I was asked to choose 20 trees and shrubs from our current online selection and share why they’re special. I selected, I counted and I already grow 18 of them, with the other two on this year’s “to buy” list. Here are the reasons these winners grace my garden.

P.S. I’m generally leaving height and spread info out since it’s well documented in the online description.

Upright European Hornbeam - I love it a lot for its refined, slightly toothed foliage and predictable silhouette. It is very twiggy, which means lots of leaves and year ‘round density. While upright and quite columnar when young, it does become more pear-shaped with age. When grown as a single trunk tree the handsome, smooth gray bark shows to great effect. It does best in sun or light shade. Success tip: It graciously accepts pruning to keep it tight and columnar. (Photo to the left)

Gold Fullmoon Maple- Many gold plants start gold, but then fade to lime/chartreuse by summer. Not this beauty! It is gold from the minute its leaves fall out until its multi-pointed leaves develop reddish tips in fall. It is a slow-growing, small ornamental tree at maturity. Mine never heat scorches in its eastern location where it bathes in full sun ‘til early PM, and then relishes the shade when it’s really hot in summer. It is definitely a specimen plant. (Photos below)

Golden Fullmoon Maple Foliage

Golden Fullmoon Maple

Heritage® River Birch - An ornamental tree that grows quickly and large enough to cast light shade. It id most sought after for its cinnamon colored peeling bark, usually grown as a multi-trunked specimen. Heritage® is cloned to replicate the parent tree’s outstanding bark color and large, dark green leaves. Fall color varies yearly, but has the potential to be clear yellow. Success tip: This is a solution tree for problematic boggy places in your landscape. So, keep it mulched and give deep watering (even established trees) if we experience prolonged hot, drought-y summers. (Photo to the right)

Tricolor Beech- Most folks don’t think of a tree as an impulse buy (except me), but the stunning pink, maroon and cream leaves are a perennial spring Siren’s call (without the danger). The leaf color is the strongest in spring and softens a bit over the summer. It has smooth elephant hide-gray bark typical of all Beeches. It can do sun or half day shade. It is slow growing, so it is realistically an ornamental, rather than a shade tree. Success tip: Plant in well-drained site and soil. Shallow-rooted, heat compaction and competition, so don’t plant ground cover, perennials, anything on top of the root system. Try to maintain large mulched root zones adjacent to their trunks. (Photos below)

Tricolor Beech Foliage

Tricolor Beech 

‘Okame’ Cherry - Hardiest of the elegant flowering cherries. April brings true bubblegum-pink flowers on reddish stems- like a pink cloud in your landscape. Dark green leaves have orange-red fall color potential. It is an ornamental tree with narrow vase shape and handsome reddish-brown bark. Does best in sun for a moderate growth rate. You don’t have to go to D.C. for cherry festival, you can have one in your own yard! Success tip: Plant in a well-drained site. Poorly drained, boggy soils will result in a future cherry tree funeral.   

‘Okame’ Cherry 

‘Okame’ Cherry  Flowering

Weeping Norway Spruce - Weeping plants are like landscape sculptures - and like art, they are very personal - you either love ‘em or hate ‘em! The height of most weeping evergreens is determined by how tall a stake they are “trained” to is, and for how long when they are young. They’ll tend to start cascading over wherever the support stake ends and that becomes their mature height. This tough-as-nails shrub will do well in sun or full shade and still look like a million bucks. It doesn’t get sparse in shade like most conifers. Weeping Norway is the definition of NO maintenance and winter snow only enhances its artistic presence. 

Cornelian Cherry Dogwood Flowers

Cornelian Cherry Dogwood Fruit

‘Degroot’s Spire’ Arborvitae - Similar in silhouette to the ubiquitous ‘Emerald Green’ Arb, but with uniquely twisted and textured foliage that is rather fernlike. This textural trait makes it special enough to use as a stand-alone specimen, or it could be used for screening. Like all Arborvitae it may naturally have one or more trunks. More trunks means broader, more bullet-shaped at the tiptop. It does best with sun or a few hours of shade. It is absolutely predictable and needs no pruning. Mine is 18-20’ tall, 4’ wide after 20 years. Like all Arborvitae, it is perfectly happy with moist soils.


Rhododendron ‘Landmark’- Some call it the “Red PJM”. I think that’s a stretch, but the buds are deep, deep rose opening to a medium rose-pink. Otherwise, it’s very similar to ‘PJM’ with the small leaves and super hardiness even in sunny, winter-windswept sites. I find that when exposed to winter sun, the leaves take on a black-purple hue that they maintain from fall to spring. It is a very nice contrast in snow. Flowers after ‘PJM’. Success tip: Plant somewhat above grade (to promote good drainage), incorporating liberal amounts of pine bark (drainage, aeration) and sulfur (to acidify). Don’t overwater.


Emerald Spreader® Yew- This is NOT the yew you grew up with around the front of your parents’ house. This is a charming, short, (growing slowly to 24-30” tall) horizontally branched and layered yew with small, dense needles arranged so that it somehow looks fern-y. Like most yews, it’s perfectly at home in a half day of shade. Emerald Spreader® is at its best when allowed to extend its arms naturally, rather than being pruned into a ball or a box…. Slow growing=minimal maintenance. Success tip: Don’t plant it near downspouts or water constantly (even the first year). Dry is better than wet with any yew.

‘Green Mountain’ Boxwood - Naturally grows upright and columnar,  but is most often offered trimmed into a pyramid, even at smaller sizes. Dark evergreen foliage, grows in sun or shade, can be left au naturelle or pruned quite formally (and that’s just about any old time of the year without making a mistake). I use mine as single punctuation points in the landscape but can certainly be used as a taller hedge- slowly growing to 5’. Is there anything this plant can’t do? I think not. 


Sugar Shack® Buttonbush- A dwarf selection of the swamp-loving  native Buttonbush. Attractive shiny foliage, but the big draw is the fun “sputnik”-like white summer flowers that are in effect for months. The sputniks are fragrant and a source of butterfly ecstasy. The flowers age to red-tinged balls that last most of the winter. Sugar Shack® also boasts burgundy fall color if grown in sun. Success tips: Know that it is late to leaf out- well into May, so not dead, just “sleeping in”. Blooms on current season’s growth so prune accordingly, if needed. How often do we find water-tolerant plants with great seasonal interest? The answer – not very often. This is on my 2020 shopping list. 

Falsecypress ‘Mop’- Often sold as ‘Golden Mop’ for obvious reasons when you see the pic or met the plant in person. This is a gold evergreen that keeps the gold glowing 365! It’s been hardy as a rock for me in ¾ daily sun, and a site with full blast northwest winter wind- no sweat. Success tip: Once a year (whenever I think of it, most often in August for some reason) I take pruners and give it a ½-1” trim all around. This is keeping it dense even on the shady side of the plant. Definitely a solo performer - with that strong color use as an accent, not in masses.


Crimson Pygmy Barberry- I’ll own up to being a plant elitist, but this is one commoner I like a lot! Deep maroon-purple color, boxwood-sized leaves, on a boxy dwarf plant with lots of attitude. Thorns turn a lot of people off, but they do act as a deterrent. (children, deer). Seriously, you only have to prune them once a year and there are things called gloves. Well worth the color punch they pack! Sun or ½ day shade. More sun=stronger color and better density. I use them for low formal hedges and as color specimens tucked about the front of perennial borders. Success tip: Don’t let them ever dry out to the point of wilting their first year. After that, they’re camels.

‘Popcorn’ Viburnum- This shrub carries itself so horizontally and regally it’s hard to find any other plant quite like it. The flowers are in ice cream scoop-like white clusters (not fragrant) perched all along the tops of the branches in May. Leaves are dark, matte-green and elongated, firing to rusty-purple in autumn. Rapid grower that is hardy to -15 to -20° F. Allegedly can fruit, but mine has evidently never found a pollinating partner. Vigorous. Success tip: Likes a moist, but well-drained soil.

Weigela Tuxedo™- We often read descriptions of foliage that is called black- and it’s usually purple. Well, this isn’t a pretender- when grown in full sun this is a black-leaved beauty! This black backdrop shows off the pristine white, tubular flowers (hummer and pollinator magnet) to best advantage. And those white flowers showboat from summer to fall! Plant is vase-shaped, 3’ tall and 3-4’ wide. No fall color, but hasn’t it already done enough for the season? Hardy to -30°F. Success tip: Blooms on current season’s growth, so prune either after bloom finishes in the fall or first thing in spring before growth commences. 


Judd Viburnum- This is the fragrant Viburnum that smells like spicy carnations (to me) and it’s pretty heavenly. Always in bloom for Mother’s Day, the deep pink buds open to intoxicating (in only the nicest way) white flowers. This gives a wonderful peppermint-stick color effect until the flowers are fully white! The shrub is naturally rounded with felted, matte-green leaves. No fruit show, but the plant has potential to explode in either strawberry-pink or maroon-purple fall color if we don’t have a premature fall frost. Success tips are unnecessary if given lots of sun and not constantly water-inundated.

‘Hessei’ Cotoneaster- This is a perennial favorite of mine, with a singularly unique arching, fountain-like branching habit and silhouette. Small, glossy dk. green leaves are a backdrop for the teeny-tiny, rose-white flowers that become green summer berries that eventually turn apple-red by Sept. Leaves are held late into fall before finally turning purplish-black. I use it in staggered masses letting it creep around and grow together as a 15-18” tall ground cover. Particularly effective paired with evergreen neighbors. 

Hess Cotoneaster fruit

Hess Cotoneaster



‘Jim Dandy’ Winterberry- Winterberries are simply deciduous hollies, and that being the case also have tiny white male and female flowers on different plants. So, buy ‘Jim Dandy’ to partner and pollinate ‘Red Sprite’ (female variety with larger-than-average red fruit). Flowering occurs after the plants have leafed out, berries are green as they’re developing (again, females only) until they ripen in September. Robins go ga-ga over the berries, hanging upside down to catch a meal as the branches sway. Reasons to love Winterberry- native, shade-tolerant (but better fruiting in full sun) and they’ll happily endure floodplain sites.

Bottlebrush Buckeye- This June-flowering shrub is the most shade-tolerant shrub I know, growing in any degree of sun to full shade. A U.S. native, the big tropical leaves highlight the 12” long white flower candles that really illuminate a shaded area. A mature plant in bloom is a beautiful thing to behold! Leaves turn clear gold in the fall. The plant doesn’t have lots of branching so it’s a “see-through” over the winter, but appears much fuller during growing season. Success tip: Bottlebrush doesn’t respond well to pruning, so why bother? But you can take the time to deadhead the “brushes” when they’re finished blooming.

Now that I’ve gushed so effusively you can understand why I’m truly taken with these 20 special plants.  Shop this collection of trees and shrubs on our website here.

Tony Fulmer

Chief Horticulture Officer