Nature Notebook: Shrubs of the Northeast

I recently took a class called Native New England Shrubs at Native Plant Trust, and as part of the class we were assigned to find certain shrubs in our area and make guidebook pages for them, including dried leaves or other plant material (if we found any) and any original images or writing designed to help ourselves remember and re-find the plants. Of course, I decided to do watercolor, so I thought you might enjoy these – they’re some of my first botanical art!

If you live in an area with these species, you might be able to find them as well.

My group started with plants toward the end of the alphabet. I put the most work into the Vaccinium and Viburnum species, so I’ll showcase them up front.

Vaccinium

Vaccinium angustifolium (Lowbush blueberry)

Mmm… Do you like blueberries? Blueberries from the grocery store may be from Highbush or Lowbush blueberry shrubs. Bonus: they’re fruiting now, if you’re reading this in mid to late August in the Northeast US!

Recognizable features:

  • Low-growing
  • Simple leaf with small teeth in alternate arrangement
  • Leaves turn red in fall
  • Smooth green twig with red bud
  • Flower is white or light pink and bell-shaped
  • Fruit is a deep blue berry growing in clusters

Habitat: Lots; I put down meadow or alpine (rocky mountaintops), but I’ve also seen it growing as an understory shrub in the dappled sunlight of medium-dense forests. This is a pretty common shrub in the semi-wild areas I’ve been to in New England (mostly wildlife reserves in the greater Boston area or Maine coast).

Vaccinium corymbosum (Highbush Blueberry)

Vaccinium corymbosum, or Highbush Blueberry, guidebook page

Compared to Lowbush Blueberry, I personally found this taller, almost tree-sized blueberry plant to be much more commonly found in people’s gardens, but less easy to find in the wild. I wouldn’t be able to tell them apart from the fruit.

Recognizable Features:

  • Bell-shaped white flowers in spring
  • Delicious, edible, deep blue berries in late summer (which, here, is now! mid-August)
  • Spreading growth habit
  • Simple leaf with no teeth in alternate arrangement
  • Exfoliating bark

Habitat: Wetlands and forests.

Vaccinium macrocarpon (Large Cranberry)

This is the cranberry that’s harvested across the United States, especially New England in the upper Midwest, for cranberry juice and Thanksgiving sauce. Massachusetts, where I live, produces 35% of the world’s cranberries, mostly through Ocean Spray, a collective of 700+ small family cranberry farms. Because the fruits float, they can be gathered on top of the water when the bog floods.

I’ve seen the common name of Vaccinium macrocarpon as Large Cranberry or American Cranberry. The small cranberry, V. oxycoccus, is native to Europe and appears to be less frequently used for a commercial fruit.

Recognizable features:

  • Low to the ground, trailing branches
  • Whorls of tiny, succulent-like leaves
  • Flower resembles the head of the crane (hence the original name “crane berry”)
  • Fruit is a deep red berry, relatively large compared to the size of the leaves

Habitat: Bogs.

Viburnum

Viburnum acerifolium (Maple-leafed Viburnum)

This is one of my new favorite plants that I learned about in Shrubs class. Its leaves really do look just like maple leaves, but it’s a shrub. It also has lacy white spring flowers and striking fall foliage – three season interest! – and it’s pretty common and easy to take care of. If I were planting a native garden in the Northeast US (or Southeast Canada), these would be on my list.

Recognizable features:

  • Maple-leaf shaped leaf
  • Flat-topped clusters of tiny white flowers in spring
  • Berry-like fruit that’s lime green in the summer and deep purple-black by fall; said to be edible (though I’ve never tried it)
  • Strikingly red fall foliage

Habitat: Wetlands and forests

Viburnum lantanoides (Hobblebush)

This was less of a favorite of mine mainly because I found it difficult to find (you really need to get out of the city). I suppose other people have found it irritating because it’s got big branches that get in your way as you walk (hobbling you). If you don’t like tarring it with that reputation, and you want to keep the theme of naming viburnums after what their leaves resemble, you could call it “Alder-Leaved Viburnum.”

What I find particularly interesting is the flower cluster in spring; the showy large flowers on the outside of the cluster are sterile, just there for show, and the fertile flowers are the tiny not-very-impressive-looking ones inside the ring.

Recognizable features:

  • Opposite simple leaves with teeth
  • Flower cluster with large showy white flowers on the outside and small unobtrusive flowers in the middle
  • Tiny, 1/3″ scarlet-red fruits in fall

Habitat: Forests

Aronia

We looped around to the beginning of the alphabet in the second week, which gave me a chance to explore the Aronia (Chokeberry) shrubs – which was neat because they were in peak fruit at the time (late July).

Aronia melanocarpa (Black chokeberry)

I really enjoyed learning about this shrub because once I knew it, I found it everywhere. It’s a very popular shrub for parks and wildlife reserves in the greater Boston area. The fruits are edible, but I didn’t try them.

Recognizable features:

  • Simple, toothed, alternate leaves that are green in summer and red in fall
  • Flat clusters of white flowers in spring
  • Flower has 5 white petals and numerous stamens with pink anthers
  • Clusters of black berries in mid-to-late summer into fall
  • Red bud in winter

Habitat: Bogs and cliffs, but also, like, lots of parks

Aronia floribunda (Purple Chokeberry)

Typically, the other Aronia you learn about is Red Chokeberry, Aronia arbutifolia, which is similar to Black Chokeberry except it has red berries. I have seen many sources which say that Black and Red are the only two kinds of chokeberry. Not quite! A. floribunda, or Purple Chokeberry, is a cross between the two other Aronias that is considered its own species because it’s not sterile and it is now found outside the range of its parents.

Aside from having a fruit that is more purplish (Perylene Violet came in handy here!), Purple Chokeberry can be distinguished from Black or Red by its fuzzy leaf undersides.

Arctophylos

Arctophylos uva-ursi (Kinnikinnick or Red Bearberry)

This is another one that trails on the ground and has red berries, similar to Cranberry. In fact, when I saw this at Garden in the Woods, the Framingham nature center run by Native Plant Trust, I thought it was cranberry. The berry is smaller and rounder (less oval-shaped), and the flowers are quite different – to me they look like the Pokemon Bellsprout, only pink or white.

Corylus

Corylus americana (American Hazelnut)

Did you know the hazelnut grew on a shrub? Or that it was native to the eastern US? I didn’t! (Nutella seems so Italian, somehow.)

Recognizable features:

  • Doubly serrated leaves (small serrations along big serrations)
  • Male and female flowers on the same plant (monoecious)
  • Male flowers are catkins (long flower clusters)
  • Female flowers are tiny red buds on the end of the branch
  • Fruit is a hard nut enclosed by a leaf-like hairy bract with ragged edges; can be red or green
  • Nuts in pairs (lol)

Habitat: Meadow or forest; sometimes cultivated as a garden shrub

Other Shrubs

Now let me dump some of the shrubs whose guidebook pages I didn’t finish. I was going to wait and finish these and post them in a different post, but now that the class is over, I think it’s easier on my peace of mind if I release myself from that mental obligation and just show the unfinished art.

Alnus Incana (Gray Alder)

I found this one difficult to ID, and I’m not sure I got it right.

Cephalanthus occidentalis (Buttonbush)

Buttonbush is one I started seeing all the time after the class. The flower and fruit, which are spherical, are just so distinctive and bizarre.

Comptonia peregrina (Sweet-fern)

A shrub that looks like a fern! What will they think of next? A cool thing about this shrub is that it has a relationship with nitrogen-forming bacteria, so planting it can actually increasing the amount of nitrogen in your soil and make it more hospitable and nutritious for other plants. Sweetfern is one of the few non-legume plants I know that can do this.

Swida racemosa (Gray Dogwood)

Okay, I did finish this art… but I’m placing this one at the end because, again, I’m pretty sure I got the “real material” wrong and included the leaf of a Swamp Dogwood. Dogwood shrubs are just really hard to tell apart, unless they’re the Red-Osier dogwood with bright red branches. I probably saw half a dozen kinds of dogwood and they all had these simple leaves and clusters of berries ranging from white to blue, green, or red with reddish stems. Who even knows?

Dogwood shrubs in the Swida genus were formerly in the Cornus genus (along with flowering dogwood trees). They’re still considered to be part of the same dogwood family, Cornaceae.

Dogwood leaves
Dogwood leaves; I think this is a Silky Dogwood (Cornus amomum)

I didn’t emphasize this in the drawing, but look at these cool leaf veins: they all run toward the tip of the leaf! This is typical of all dogwoods. I learned from the Completely Arbortrary podcast that this is called “arcuate” (arced, bowed) venation.

The Shrubs Not Painted

I didn’t get around to researching every shrub in the class; other groups did additional shrubs from the middle of the alphabet. For My Information, in case I ever go back to draw more native Northeast shrubs, the others from the class were:

  • Diervilla lonicera – Northern Bush Honeysuckle
  • Gaylussacia baccatta – Black Huckleberry
  • Hamamelis virginiana – American Witch-hazel
  • Ilex mucronata and Ilex verticillata – Holly
  • Kalmia angustifolia and Kalmia latifolia – Laurel
  • Lindera benzoin – Northern Spicebush
  • Morella caroliniensis – Bayberry
  • Myrica gale – Sweetgale
  • Rhododendron canadense – Rhodora
  • Rhus copallinum and Rhus typhina – Sumac
  • Rosa carolina – Carolina Rose
  • Rubus odoratus – Flowering Raspberry
  • Sambucus nigra and Sambucus racemosa – Elderberry
  • Spiraea alba and Spiraea tomentosa – Meadowsweet
  • Swida amomum – Silky Dogwood

Conclusion

I took the class because shrubs felt like a gap in my interest; I love flowers and trees, but the middle-sized plants are just like ???? I feel like I learned a lot, and now when I see a shrub I tend to ask “What’s that?” instead of simply ignoring it.

The information has already come in handy, as my partner and I have started to consider planting shrubs at our home, and each time I look up good shrubs for the area I’m delighted to find that some of them now feel like old friends. “Oh yeah! Sweetfern! I know about him!”

By doing this project, I also got a lot of experience doing utilitarian botanical art, which I feel has broken the seal somewhat since this was a type of art that intimidated me. It’s easier to do when it’s for a purpose.

I hope you enjoyed this glimpse into my classwork, and I hope you will find yourself a shrub to love!

Recommended reading: Uli Lorimer’s Native Plant Primer.

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