Create the Classic Southern Garden
Story and Photos by Bonnie Helander

Springtime is bloom time in the South. Excitement soars as the brilliant arrays of pinks, reds, whites, blues, and purple bloom, and some of the South’s most traditional plants take center stage. While many of our favorites are native to our southeastern habitat, some actually originated in Asia, but have been adopted as iconic plants of the South. Let’s take a look at some of the show stoppers that create the classic Southern look.

Flowering Trees

If you had a popularity contest for favorite trees, the flowering dogwood, magnolia, and Eastern redbud would earn the top three spots.

Pink Dogwood

Our native dogwood (Cornus florida) is a beautiful understory tree (thriving under the dappled light of taller trees) but does have some fungal disease challenges. The Kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa), native to East Asia, is a popular choice since it is more disease-resistant and has colorful fall foliage and beautiful exfoliating bark.

Eastern Redbud

Our native Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) is another prized understory tree. The variety known as ‘The Rising Sun’ is a favorite, with striking lavender blooms appearing on the bare branches in early spring. The foliage of ‘Rising Sun’ is just as spectacular—starting out pink and then changing to apricot, gold, and finally lime green, making it a show-stopper into fall!

Southern Magnolia 

You really can’t say you have a Southern garden unless you plant at least one magnolia! Native magnolias are huge and don’t fit in many of our reduced landscape sites. Magnolia grandiflora ‘Little Gem’ is a great selection since it only gets about 15–20’ tall. The glossy green leaves are smaller and so are the flowers, but with ‘Little Gem’ you don’t have to wait for years for it to bloom as you do with larger species. Classic, fragrant white blossoms begin in summer and continue through the fall. Other magnolias to consider are star magnolia (Magnolia stellata) with sweet, star-shaped flowers, and the saucer magnolia (Magnolia x soulangeana), also known as the tulip magnolia, which produces saucer-shaped pink and white blooms on bare branches.

Spectacular Shrubs


Nothing is more anticipated in the spring than the blooming of a mass planting of azaleas. Another plant adopted from Asia and now considered a must-have southern plant, azaleas come in every color of the rainbow, and different varieties bloom at different times, which allow you to feast on flowers throughout the whole spring and into early summer. Our native azaleas are deciduous (they lose their foliage in the winter) but have gorgeous tubular blooms in spring and exceptional fall color before leaf drop. Favorite azaleas include the Encore® reblooming varieties that give you flowers periodically throughout spring, summer, and fall.

Bigleaf Hydrangea

An old-fashioned shrub that evokes “days gone by” in your grandmother’s garden is the hydrangea. A pass-along plant that is easy to propagate and share with other gardeners, the hydrangea becomes the star in the garden in late spring. The most popular is the bigleaf (mophead) hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla), known for its huge, globe-shaped cluster of blooms in exquisite pinks, blues, and whites. It is one of the few plants in the garden that produce true blue flowers.

My favorite hydrangea, the oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) is native to the Southeast, blooms in full sun, and has large white cone-shaped flowers and vivid red leaves in the fall. It takes little care and thrives in our climate. Also check out the panicle and lacecap hydrangeas to expand your collection.


Add romance to the garden with camellias. They are prized for their luscious, fragrant flowers that last for weeks, and for their shiny evergreen leaves that give structure to the garden all year. If you plant both popular types of camellias (Camellia sasanqua and Camellia japonica) you can enjoy the flowers and fragrance from late fall through the spring. For inspiration on how to incorporate camellias into your landscape, visit Massee Lane Gardens in Fort Valley, home of the American Camellia Society and over 1,000 varieties of camellias, many of them for sale. The peak time to visit Massee Lane Gardens is in February through early March.

Boxwood Hedge

No Southern garden is complete without a boxwood hedge or parterre. A parterre is a construction of hedges in symmetrical patterns, surrounding flower beds and pathways. Because boxwood is evergreen and can take both shade and sun, this shrub provides the “bones” of the garden, giving structure throughout the winter months. Old, historic Southern gardens used the dwarf English boxwood (Buxus sempervirens ‘Suffruticosa’). American boxwood (Buxus sempervirens) is a good alternative for a tall hedge. It is tough, drought-tolerant, and deer-resistant. To see beautiful examples of how you can use boxwood in a formal Southern garden, plan a visit to Hills & Dales Estate in LaGrange, which features 2.5 acres of boxwood parterres.

Climbing Vines 

To add a sense of mystery and charm to the garden, make sure you have a few climbing plants to sprawl over an arbor, trellis or fence. Jasmine, crossvine, American wisteria (Wisteria frutescens) and climbing roses are the perfect additions. Climbing vines soften hardscapes and add more color and fragrance to the garden.

Chinese Snowball Viburnum

Other tried-and-true Southern favorites to plant include spring daffodils, Chinese snowball viburnum (Viburnum macrocephalum) and gardenia. Just add a classic garden sculpture or two and you have created the magic found in the classic Southern garden.