While it’s often easiest to identify a shrub when it is in flower or bearing fruit, that’s only the case for part of the year. A more reliable identifying characteristic is the shrub’s leaves. Leaves are either simple or compound. Simple leaves are not divided in any way, like an aspen leaf. Compound leaves are divided into leaflets or needles, like juniper or ivy.
The other main characteristic is whether the leaves are opposite or alternately placed on the stem or branch. Opposite leaves are attached in pairs opposite each other, while alternate leaves are attaching singly at alternating sides or in a spiral.
The final easy leaf identification guideline is to note the type of leaf. It may be broad, narrow, or needle. Shape is a better indicator than size, since individual shrubs can vary in leaf size. There are three basic leaf shapes, excluding those of conifers: lobed, smooth, and toothed. Lobed leaves have curvy or forked edges, such as oak leaves, while toothed leaves have many small teeth along the edges. Smooth leaves, naturally, have smooth edges.
Shrub Flowers & Fruits
Identifying shrubs is easy in the spring, when those that produce flowers do so. Color, shape, and scent of blossoms can tell you a lot about what kind of shrub it is. The time of spring in which it blooms is also important. Some are very early-blooming, while others don’t blossom till late spring. Consult a local cold hardiness zone map to find out when certain shrubs can be expected to bloom in your area.
Note the size of flowers; large and showy blooms can be distinguished from close cousins that produce only small flower clusters. Fruits have as many defining attributes as flowers do: observe whether the skin of berries or fruits is hard or soft, whether there is fuzz on the fruits, whether they have nuts or seeds, and their color, size and shape.
In the winter, you may have no leaves, flowers or fruits to consult in your shrub identification. You can still tell where leaves were placed on twigs or stems, by examining the branches for leaf scars and buds. Some shrubs will have buds at the end of each twig, called a terminal bud, while others do not, only having axillary buds along the stem instead.
Examine the color and texture of stems, as well. Rough or smooth bark might eliminate a possible identification, as could whether the buds are gray or red. Thorns or hairs on shrub stems also vary widely and can help identify a plant. They can be small or large, narrow or hooked, opposite or alternate.
Want to learn more about identifying shrubs?
Check out these Web sites chosen by us for more information on the subject.
The University of Wisconsin at Green Bay provides a tree and shrub introduction.
The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service has a PDF Trees and Shrubs Pocket Identification Guide.
I am trying to find the name of a shrub that has yellow leaves and pink flowers, can you help please
Isobel Brookes says
Joe shiltz says
Gold leaf spirea
janet givens says
this summer in a little used part of my yard a plant started growing and i would like to i.d. it. it was interesting so i didn’t cut it down, and now i cant find out what it was. it ended up about 3ft h x 3ft w and was kinda ‘spindly’ looking. it had what looked like green beans on it. the leaves were very odd as they were flat, basically round, with several grouped together in a ‘cluster’ (kinda like a few silver dollars all together), but they were green, not silver. It had small yellow flowers on it. Any ideas???
Dont know where you live but cesalpinias (Mexican Bird of Paradise) come in different varieties. One is red and common in Arizona. Another is common throughout the southwest and has small yellow blossoms. They turn into pods containing seeds which self sow easily.
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Here are we do is pop the T-disc into the coffee maker and away we
Gardening Channel says
I drink coffee at your mom’s house after I finish popping in the “t-disc” into her coffee maker, if you know what I mean….
Sue Morrow says
What does drinking coffee have to do with identifying shrubs? I sure was hoping for some help in identifying shrubs, and the information you give is basic basic basic. Where are pictures? Where are the keys? A list of shrubs with names would be extremely helpful. The comments by Angela and janet seem to be wondering the same thing. Coffee?????
Wendie Toohey says
I have a unknown shrub in my backyard.It has clusters of small white flowers that turn brown quickly.It smells wonderful .I received it as a gift 3 or 4 years ago and this is the first year it flowered.I have no clue what it is and how would I find out?
Isobel Brookes says
Carmella Fitzpatrick says
What is the name of a shrub with red berries that have star shapes at the base of the berry. A child was about to pick them to eat and I suggested it might be wise to find out if its safe to eat first. Please help. Thank you.
*not good for eating – see shakespere
I have a shrub in my yard the flowers look like a white aster . It’s in bloom now and flowers before foliage appears. The blooms are significant , prolific but not showy. They have a faint anise aroma
Tammy Roark says
I have a bush that has large almost heart shaped dark green leaves. The flower first forms as a rounded shape of tiny round hot pink or fuschia bulbs. These bulbs open up into light pink star shaped flowers. The end result is a large (5″) mound of light pink star shaped flowers. This plant has grown to be about 5 to 6 feet high and has spread under my deck. The plant has protruded through the cracks of my deck and has spread to around 6 feet in diameter judging by the protruding parts. It really is beautiful and reminds me of a hydrangea in ways except for the hot pink bulbs. It also looks like a lilac but the blooms are perfectly rounded. Do you know what this plant is called? How do I prune the spent (brown) blooms?
Looking for a name of my small evergreen plant with fine spindly leaves
Trying to identify
4 white petals (1st it’s like a white ball)
Red multi piece center
Grows well in southern AZ
Smooth oval green leaves
Betty Mercer says
I have a beautiful Bush growing in my garden in flower at the moment, the flowers resemble St John’s Wort but they are much smaller and a lovely deep orange colour. Any ideas please?
Hi, looking for help. New plant has appeared in UK southern garden. Leaves are dull, green, lobed. About same size as large oak leaf but this is very pointy rather than rounded like an oak. Has three sets of points and then a pointy tip. Is on a thick stem. Any ideas please.
We just bought a home with clearly beloved gardens. Around one garden area is 4 bushes with reddish tips no flowers, yet anyway. It smells a little funky almost cat pee like. Im thinking about pulling them out but would like to identify them first. Anyone with a guess. We live in Georgia if that helps.
DeAnna Carter says
Not sure without a pic but they sound like it may be a shrub called red tip…I dont think they bloom but not really sure..
Pam Marten says
Red tipped photenia?
Ann Wright says
Small bush in my backyard, no blooms, just leaves. It doesn’t stay green in the winter, grows back in the spring, grows about 3 feet. I live in south Texas.
It might be a winterberry. Unless they are planted near one or two other winter berries, they will not bloom in the winter. Their habit of growing is to lose their leaves in the fall, and then produce a profusion of beautiful red berries…no leaves, until spring, when it sheds it’s berries, and repeats the process.
I have seen this plant at a house not far from me….it is being kind of as a privacy fence. It has grown about 5 foot tall in just a years time! It is a dark green bush and has long lilac color red spikey flowers on it. I/ does stay green in the winter..then blooms again all summer
Anyone have any idea what this may be? It is not a lilac bush I know for sure…
Mary Ann S says
I have 2 bushes that just grew in our yard. I thought i saw purple flowers o it once, but the past couple years nothing. My husband keeps trimming them, he would rather cut them down, but i said no. Anyway, we live in a suburb of Chicago. The leaves are always green, turn brown in winter. I don’t believe they are lilacs but i would really like to know what they are. The leaves kind of have a carnation look to them.
Laura Climer says
I have a large bush that is growing wild in my back yard , It has big yellow bushes growing on it .The bee’s are very thick around it . I dont want to touch it as i dont know what it is . Could show some pictures of bushes that grow wild ?/
Gerald Albert says
Trying to identify a bush which has three point green leaves with white, pink, and bluish white flowers
Trying to identify this shrub.
Green and red alternating leaves. More red towards the ends. Broad, lobed and toothed leaves (I think) with smooth stems. Stems are also red towards the end and green/grey towards the base. Wish I could send a pic.
A green bush growing little green mini pumpkins, apparantly good benefits for the skin (a chinese lady told me)
I have a scrub that has heart-shaped leaves. The leaf stems are red and the leaves are green. The leaf bunches start at the base of the shrub. The leaves are multiple bunches alternating sides as it goes up to the top of the shrub. Can anyone tell me what it is?
Sherry Burkhart says
The leaves are separated in the middle. Then each side has veins in a row. The leaves are shiny.
I have a big bush I can’t identify. It has some kind of thin curly brown hairs growing all over it. There’s a hole in the center that leaks sap and it smells horrible.
Judy Carlin says
Trying to identify a plant that landscapes the front of our house. The leaves are waxy and smaller and it bears red berries in the fall.
Maria G says
We have some rather strange shrubs in the backyard. It is dense and random extremely long branches grow out of it. We can’t seem to control it! We are in planting Zone 7 and these plants were part of the previous owners’ landscaping plan (which was extremely “poetic” and haphazard…); they are so close to the back fence that they invade the neighbors’ yard and we get a lot of complaints.
Any suggestions as to what they are, and how we might handle them? Pruning has done very little…it’s very aggressive vegetation!