Smart trees and shrubs for natural shoreline plantings

If you have property on a waterfront, native trees and shrubs help protect shorelines and provide beauty.

Example of well-planned shoreline landscape. Photo credit: Mary Wilson, MSU Extension
Example of well-planned shoreline landscape. Photo credit: Mary Wilson, MSU Extension

Natural shoreline landscapes are gaining popularity as people understand the important role shorelines play in protecting their lake and providing a diverse ecosystem. Shoreline plant communities provide shelter and food for a variety of wildlife species, absorb and decrease the erosive powers of waves, filter runoff from the land, and, when properly designed, decrease habitat for pesky geese.

Well thought-out shoreline plantings can be aesthetically pleasing, used to enhance or frame a view as well as provide season long interest at the water’s edge. Adding habitat for birds and butterflies will add to your overall enjoyment of this outdoor living space. For guidelines on designing a shoreline landscape, refer to Bindu Bhakta’s Michigan State University Extension article, “Implementing shoreline landscaping requires pre-planning.”

Select the right plants

A successful shoreline landscape hinges on matching plants needs to site conditions. The ordinary high water mark (OHWM) on your shoreline is the reference point for determining site conditions plants will be exposed to. Consequently, locating the OHWM is crucial for putting the right plant in the right place. The OHWM is the level where the action of water is so common and long lasting that it leaves evidence, or a “mark,” on the landscape. It usually designates the point where plant types switch from being water-dependent plants to terrestrial plants. Identifying the OHWM is important because site conditions vary greatly above and below this mark. Certain plants are suited to growing conditions below the OHWM and others are suited to growing above the OHWM. The OHWM is also a regulatory point of reference and, according to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, only native Michigan species may be planted below the OHWM.

Where do trees and shrubs fit?

Between the water level and OHWM. Trees and shrubs that tolerate consistently moist soil, seasonal flooding and exposure to energy from waves and ice grow well in the area between the water level and ordinary high water mark. Be sure to select only native trees and shrubs for this area. It’s not only required, but natives are well-adapted to existing site and climate conditions. Some examples of readily available natives suited for this area include:

  • Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis): 6’ - Multi-stemmed shrub; unusual round, fragrant white flowers in summer; nectar source; ducks and other water birds and shorebirds consume the seeds; and full sun to part shade.
  • Redstemmed dogwood (Cornus sericea): 10’ – Multi-stemmed shrub; attractive clusters of white flowers in May; nice fall color; conspicuous red branches in winter; attracts mammals, butterflies and birds; and full sun to part shade.

Close-up of buttonbush’s fragrant, summer flowers and attractive shiny leaves. Photo credit: Mary Wilson, MSU Extension

Other suggestions include:

  • Bog birch (Betula pumila)
  • Silky dogwood (Cornus amomum)
  • Swamp rose (Rosa palustris)
  • Sandbar willow (Salix interior)
  • Black willow (Salix nigra)

Above the OHWM. Trees and shrubs for this area tolerate soils that are consistently moist, but are less likely to flood. They do not like continuous stress resulting from waves and ice. Smart choices for lakefront landscapes include the following natives:

  • Winterberry (Ilex verticillata): 6-12’ – Multi-stemmed shrub; grows in wet or dry soils; shrubs are either male or female; brilliant fall and winter fruit display; readily attracts birds; and sun to partial shade.
  • Common ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius): 10’ – Multi-stemmed shrub; tolerates wet to dry soils; clusters of whitish-pink flowers in May; attractive fruit capsule turns shades of red in early fall; and full sun to partial shade.
  • Red maple (Acer rubrum): 75’ – Shade tree with single or multiple trunks; red-orange fall color; select cultivars for consistent fall color; provides food for squirrels and some bird species; and full sun to shade.

Red maple
The beautiful fall color of red maple. Photo credit: Mary Wilson, MSU Extension

Other suggestions include:

  • Black chokeberry (Aronia melancarpa)
  • Yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis)
  • Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis)
  • Honeylocust (Gleditsia triacanthos)
  • Swamp white oak (Quercus macrocarpa)
  • American elderberry (Sambucus canadensis)
  • Arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum)
  • Nannyberry (Viburnum lentago)

Upland. This planting area is further away from the high water mark and features drier soils. There are numerous native trees and shrubs that can be incorporated into a design in this landscape area. Some suggested natives include:

  • Shrubby cinquefoil (Potentilla fruiticosa): 4’ – Multi-stemmed, rounded shrub; fine-textured foliage; long blooming yellow flowers from June until frost; easy to grow; and prefers full sun for best flowering.
  • Serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea): 15’ – Large shrub with white, wispy flowers in early spring; edible fruit in June; beautiful fall color; smooth gray bark; attracts game birds and songbirds; and full sun to shade.

Edible serviceberry fruit in early June is similar to blueberries. Photo credit: Mary Ellen Harte,

Other suggestions include:

  • New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americana)
  • Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis)
  • Alternate-leaf dogwood (Cornus alternifolia)
  • American hazelnut (Corylus americana)
  • Diervilla (Diervilla lonicera)
  • Ironwood (Ostrya virginiana)
  • American elder (Sambucus canadensis)
  • Red-berried elder (Sambucus racemosa)

Additional resources

More examples of plants can be found at the Michigan Natural Shoreline Partnership Native Plants webpage. Also, for a great primer on the topic of natural shoreline landscapes, obtain a copy of “Natural Shoreline Landscapes on Michigan’s Inland Lakes: Guidebook for Property Owners” (MSU Extension bulletin #E3145) available from the MSU Extension Bookstore.

Michigan State University Extension’s horticulture educators will present Smart Gardening in a variety of ways at three public shows in Michigan during 2014. The Novi Cottage and Lakefront Living Show on Feb. 27-March 2; the West Michigan Home and Garden Show on March 6-9; and the Lansing Home and Garden Show on March 13-16 will host a variety of free seminars, informational booths and be the site to “ask the experts” from MSU Extension about your gardening questions.

For more information on a wide variety of Smart Gardening articles, or to find out about Smart Gardening classes and events, visit

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