The Understory


The understory is a compilation of mostly native, mostly deciduous small trees and multistem shrubs—extremely hardy to variant conditions and beautiful most of the year. They offer screening from unsightly views, shade, and health to the canopy floor, and are a fantastic variation between tree and herbaceous layers. They not only plant and play well together when stacked, but also stand well alone.

Below is a list of understory trees and shrubs that offer much to the landscape—blooming at unusual times, striking the view in some strong way, and giving something truly unique. They offer more than meets the eye, ranging vastly in heights; generally multistemmed, so naturally providing habitat for birds; they often flower; offer bounty; change to a brilliant hue come fall; and add interest in the dormant winter landscape.

They greatly contrast the landscape in their placement alone, occupying a midspace right at eye level while their appropriate zone and hardy nature make them easy to apply. This list is seemingly focused on aesthetics alone, but the ecosystem will also thank you. A few specific preferred varieties have been mentioned, though this can range on planting location. The list is ordered smallest to tallest considering mature height.

Forsythia . Truly any and all varieties are stunning, providing a bright show of dazzling yellow flowers coating bare branches that bloom to show spring has arrived.

Red-twig dogwood, Cornus alba, Cornus racemosa , ‘Arctic Fire’. Striking red branches mark a winter landscape while white flowers accent late spring/early summer. Handles water-sogged ground no problem.

Aronia melanocarpa , chokeberry. White flowers abound midspring. In August, glossy black fruit will be devoured by birds, just in time for foliage to rival the brightest reds come September.

Rhododendron azalea , ‘PJM’, ‘Mandarin Lights’, ‘Landmark’. Hot displays of purple, orange, or fuchsia flowers dangle from bare or lightly leafed branches early spring.

Hazelnut, Corylus ‘Contorta’ (Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick). A fantastic foundation shrub offering curly branches, leathery leaves, fall browns, and the most unique flowers. Another favorite variety is ‘Red Dragon’, which boasts red and dark-green/purple foliage. Slow and reliable grower.

Witch hazel, Hamamelis vernalis ‘Amethyst’, Hamamelis × intermedia ‘Diane’. Blooms in February, and Hamamelis virginiana blooms in November. Feathery clumps accent soon-to-be-bare or bare limbs and last for just more than a month.

Juneberry, Amelanchier alnifolia , the saskatoon or ‘Regent’, Amelanchier canadensis . An absolute favorite! This delicate, multistemmed beauty is ornately decorated in white flowers midspring, leaving room for equally delicate leaves and small dark fruit to develop, then finally giving way to a brilliant orange come fall. A true stunner, this Wisconsin native is never a disappointing presence, and everyone, including you, will love the berries—if you can beat the birds.

Redbud, Cercis canadensis . Hundreds of tiny hot fuchsia flowers lace among smooth grey bark early in the spring, generally early April.

Magnolia ‘Elizabeth’ (yellow), Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Star’ (purple and white). The bark of this solid-trunked tree often resembles elephant skin, but smoother. Fuzzy buds develop late fall and open to dazzling saucer-sized blooms midspring. The full canopy display of flowers is hard to parallel and impossible to miss on the horizon.

Crab apple, Malus . Any variety based on your preference for color of bloom, color of foliage, and size of mature tree. Shocking canopies of pinks, reds, and whites sit decoratively just above an emergent earth, as these reliable trees bloom in early spring.

River birch, Betula nigra , ‘Little King’, ‘Crimson Frost’. This multistemmed medium tree is a four-season class act. Exfoliating cinnamon- to copper- to cream-colored bark wows with age. Tolerating soggy wet feet to clay conditions makes this specimen a Wisconsin treasure.

‘Tricolor’ beech, Fagus sylvatica . This tree quite possibly gets two awards of those on the list: most challenging to establish and most unique. The foliage of this slow-growing gem is usually three colors at the same time all throughout the growing season.

Hemlock, Tsuga canadensis . Evergreen and extremely tolerant of a huge variety of conditions, except hot summer sun, this tree is the only one on the list to truly stay the same all season, and the dark needles and soft feel make this an understory must have.

Karina Mae is the designer and team leader at Garden Search & Rescue.

Garden Search & Rescue
Madison, WI