Kentucky Plant Life - Native Shrubs

The general difference between a shrub (or bush) and a tree is height of the mature plant. A number of plants can be shrubs or trees, depending on the environment. Generally, perennial woody plants that do not grow taller than 15 feet (4.5 meters), are termed "shrubs". Another recognizable difference is in the anatomy and appearance of the stem or trunk. A tree normally grows from one upright stem or trunk. On the other hand, a shrub can have multiple trunks, branching out from just above the ground. Kentucky native shrubs include both deciduous and evergreen varieties.

Common native shrubs of Kentucky include:

  • Members of the Heath Family: Flame Azalea and Sandmyrtle
  • Members of the Holly Family: American Holly, Mountain Winterberry, Swamp Holly, and Winterberry.
  • Members of the Honeysuckle Family: Coralberry, Elderberry, Hobblebush and Mapleleaf Viburnum
  • Members of the Rose Family: Downy Serviceberry and Smooth Serviceberry.
  • Members of the Sumac Family: Fragrant Sumac, Smooth Sumac, Staghorn Sumac, and Winged Sumac.
  • The Wild Hydrangea and Eastern Red Cedar, are also native shrub species found in Kentucky.
  • Some sources list members of the Horse-Chestnut Family, including the Ohio Buckeye, as shrubs.


sandmyrtle shrub
Photo by Paul Durr - Used with permission of the University of Tennessee Herbarium
The Sandmyrtle is a member of the Heath Family. This plant can live in a variety of growing conditions but flourishes best in cool moist soil and part shade. An evergreen shrub, it produces pinkish-white flowers, (as shown in the picture above), in late spring and generally grows to about 18 in. (45 cm) tall.

Elderberry Shrub and the Fruit of the Elderberry

elderberry bush

elderberry fruit

Photos Copyright Steven J. Baskauf, Vanderbilt University. Used with permission. (Vanderbilt University Bioimages.)

The Elderberry or Common Elder is native to a large part of the eastern United States, including Kentucky. This deciduous shrub prefers a sunny location and grows to 10 feet (3 meters) or more in a variety of soils. In summer its flowers are large white corymbs, (pictured above left), and in the autumn, purple-black berries are produced in sagging clusters. All parts of the Elderberry are poisonous except the berries which are used for jellies, in winemaking and medicinal products.

Smooth Sumac
Photo by Ted Bodner, USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / James H. Miller and Karl V. Miller. 2005. Forest plants of the southeast and their wildlife uses. University of Georgia Press., Athens. Used with permission

Smooth Sumac

Smooth Sumac, (pictured at left), is a spreading, bushy, deciduous shrub, that can reach heights of 10 feet or more (3 meters) under optimal growing conditions. It bears panicles of small green flowers in late spring/early summer, followed by larger panicles of crimson red berries on female plants that remain throughout the winter.


KSNPC Rare Plants Database
Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission provides a searchable database where you can search by "common name", "scientific name", your "county name" or get a listing for statewide rare plants.

USDA Plants Database
You can search by scientific or common name, or do a state search and see a listing of plants in your state. There are over 30,000 images of plants, and a wealth of knowledge available on this site.

Plant Facts is a huge interactive data base with photos and videos produced and maintained by The Ohio State University. Their web site says they have: "merged several digital collections developed at Ohio State University to become an international knowledge bank and multimedia learning center"

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