Style Guide – Woodland Gardens Part 3

Perfect Woodland Shrubs

from The Weatherstaff PlantingPlanner – intelligent garden design software

Woodland gardens invoke all our senses at once. Sun dappling through leaves, a shady respite on a hot summer’s day, birdsong, damp earth, rustling leaves.

Acer palmatum Ornatum in woodland
Acer palmatum ‘Ornatum’ in a woodland setting

Perfect Shrubs for a Woodland Garden

Getting the structure right is essential for any planting plan. During the winter months particularly, when perennials have collapsed into a soggy state of despair and bulbs have long since fled, a backbone of trees and shrubs provides form and interest.

If your garden is too small for a variety of trees or you are planting up just a corner in a woodland style, then you might choose to use large shrubs instead of trees to provide the top layer of planting. Prune to create several main stems, removing the lower branches so that you can plant the next layer of perennials and bulbs beneath. Good choices for this treatment are Magnolia, Philadelphus and Lilac.

Pink flower of Magnolia x loebneri 'Leonard Messel'
Magnolia x loebneri ‘Leonard Messel’

Magnolia x loebneri ‘Leonard Messel’ is a large deciduous shrub (or small tree), eventually reaching 8m by 6m. Starry, delicately scented, pale lilac-pink flowers are produced in profusion in mid-spring. In milder springs, the colouring is more intense. It has been awarded the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit (AGM). Magnolias usually prefer slightly acidic soil but ‘Leonard Messel’ is happy in most soils, including chalk.

Flower of Magnolia Susan
Magnolia ‘Susan’

Magnolia Susan (AGM, 4m high) has slender, goblet-shaped flowers from mid spring through to midsummer. The slightly twisted petals are purple-red on the outside, pale inside, and open from darker buds.

Magnolia x soulangiana Alba Superba in woodland
Magnolia x soulangiana ‘Alba Superba’

Magnolia x soulangeana ‘Alba Superba’ grows to 7m x 5m. It has beautiful, white goblet-shaped flowers, flushed pink-purple at the base, in mid- to late spring.
Magnolia liliiflora ‘Nigra’ is smaller, growing to 3m. It has a stunning display of pink/ purple-red flowers in early summer, continuing intermittently through the summer and into autumn. It has an Award of Garden Merit.
Magnolias are happy in full sun or part shade, but need protection from cold winds. They like moist, well-drained soil.

Double white flower of Philadelphus 'Virginal'
Philadelphus ‘Virginal’

Philadelphus, or Mock Orange, has wonderful, orange-blossom-scented flowers. Philadelphus ‘Virginal’ is a vigorous, upright shrub, growing to 3m high. It has dark green foliage and clusters of 5-9 double, pure white flowers in early to mid-summer.

Philadelphus Belle Etoile from Weatherstaff
Philadelphus ‘Belle Etoile’

Philadelphus ‘Belle Etoile’ is a compact, neat shrub (AGM, 1.2m in height), with arching stems. The cup-shaped flowers are white, with a purple splash at the base of the petals. Carried singly or in clusters of 3-5, the flowers are borne in profusion in late spring and early summer.

Philadelphus coronarius 'Aureus'
Philadelphus coronarius ‘Aureus’

Philadelphus coronarius ‘Aureus’ (AGM, 2.5m x 1.5m) is an upright shrub, with clusters of fragrant cream-white, cup-shaped flowers in early summer. The toothed leaves open yellow, fading to yellow-green by late summer. Philadelphus is happy in well-drained soil in full sun or part shade. However, yellow-leaved varieties may do better in light shade as they suffer leaf scorch. It is an easy-going shrub, tolerant of air pollution and coastal conditions.


The sweetly scented lilacs are a garden classic. Flowers in shades of pinks, purples and white appear in late spring or early summer.

Syringa vulgaris is the common lilac, a large deciduous shrub with heart-shaped leaves and long panicles of small, highly fragrant flowers. Syringa prefers neutral to alkaline soil in full sun. It is well suited to chalk, though grows well in most well-drained soils.

Bicolour flowers of Syringa vulgaris 'Sensation'
Syringa vulgaris ‘Sensation’

Syringa vulgaris ‘Sensation’ (AGM, 4m x 4m) has stunning bicolour flowers, purple-red, highlighted with white margins.

Close-up of Syringa vulgaris ‘Andenken an Ludwig Späth’
Syringa vulgaris ‘Andenken an Ludwig Späth’

Syringa vulgaris ‘Andenken an Ludwig Späth’ (AGM, 4m x 4m) has long, slim panicles of red-purple flowers, which appear in late spring and early summer.

Pale blue flowers of Syringa vulgaris 'Firmament'
Syringa vulgaris ‘Firmament’

Syringa vulgaris ‘Firmament’ has pale blue flowers, opening from lilac-pink buds. It, too, has received an Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society.

Syringa pubescens subsp. microphylla ‘Superba’
Syringa pubescens subsp. microphylla ‘Superba’

Syringa pubescens subsp. microphylla ‘Superba’ is another AGM winner and smaller at 2.5m in height. Loose clusters of highly fragrant, long-tubed, pale pink flowers, opening from darker buds, appear in late spring and then intermittently through to autumn.

Feathery panicles of Smoke Bush

A large, bushy, deciduous shrub with attractive autumn colours. Feathery panicles appear in summer, resembling a cloud of smoke and giving the shrub its common name of ‘Smoke Bush’. The flowers are followed by tiny drupes.

Red-purple foliage of Cotinus Royal Purple
Cotinus ‘Royal Purple’

The spring and summer foliage of Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’ (AGM) is deep red-purple, becoming scarlet in autumn. Panicles are warm pink, followed by purple drupes. The shrub grows to 5m. ‘Ruby Glow’ has deep reddish-pink flowers and spectacular autumn colours. It is a more compact shrub, growing to 1.8m. ‘Candy Floss’ has green foliage and soft pink flowers. It grows to 4m high.


The Japanese Maples are slow-growing shrubs or small trees, grown for their beautiful foliage and wonderful autumn colours. Acers like moist, well-drained soil in sun or partial shade. Protect from cold winds and late frosts if possible. Autumn leaf colour is usually best in partial shade.

Acer palmatum 'Atropurpureum'
Acer palmatum ‘Atropurpureum’

Acer palmatum ‘Atropurpureum’ (up to 6m in height) has deeply lobed, dark red leaves, which turn a brilliant red in autumn.

Acer palmatum ‘Dissectum Seiryu’
Acer palmatum ‘Dissectum Seiryu’

Acer palmatum ‘Dissectum Seiryu’ (AGM, to 4m) is an attractive, deciduous, miniature tree. Leaves are deeply dissected to give a wonderful feathery appearance. Bright green foliage, tipped red in spring, becomes golden in autumn. While most of the Dissectum maples have a weeping habit, ‘Seiryu’, unusually, has an elegant upright shape.

Foliage of Acer palmatum ‘Chiyo-hime’
Acer palmatum ‘Chiyo-hime’

Acer palmatum ‘Chiyo-hime’ is a pretty, dwarf Japanese Maple, growing up to 2m in time. Red-tinged green leaves open in spring, becoming bright green in summer, before taking on yellow, orange and red autumn tints.

More Woodlanders

Rhododendrons and camellias are classic woodlanders, lovers of acidic soil and with flamboyant colourful flowers.

Rhododendron fulvum
Rhododendron fulvum (AGM)

There are Rhododendrons to suit every colour preference and, depending on the variety you choose, they could flower any time between February and August.


Camellias are elegant shrubs with glossy leaves and exquisite flowers. They flower prodigiously so can easily spare a bloom or two to float in a glass bowl as a table centrepiece.

Hamamelis Intermedia Diane winter flower border design
Hamamelis Intermedia ‘Diane’

Rich autumn colours and winter flowers make Hamamelis (witch hazel) an excellent choice for woodland gardens too. The spice-scented flowers have ribboned petals in yellows, oranges or reds. Hamamelis Intermedia ‘Diane’ (AGM) has beautiful copper-red flowers.

Related post:

Shrubs - Woodland Gardens Part 3 - from Weatherstaff garden design software
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The Weatherstaff Team