You pass viburnums in the landscape all the time – some growing wild, others dotting commercial and residential landscapes and even parking lots – but probably don't realize what they are. Not as recognizable as roses or lilacs, these trouble-free, underappreciated shrubs offer multiple seasons of interest, and add substance to any garden.
To paraphrase horticulturist Dr. Michael Dirr, author of The Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, viburnums don't have one single wow factor. What makes them great garden shrubs is the sum of their parts.
There are over 150 species of viburnum worldwide, some native to North America. Most species are deciduous, but those from warmer climates are evergreen, with lustrous foliage.
Some viburnums flower in clusters that look like snowballs. Others have a flat-topped flower cluster that resembles lacecap hydrangeas. Most bloom in April and May, in colors that run from pure white, to cream, to soft pinks. Some, such as V. carlesii and V. burkwoodii, have flowers with the most intoxicating fragrance imaginable, so intense that it carries on the spring breeze.
Summer leaves have interesting shapes and textures that provide interest when not in bloom. And the fall show is stunning: fruits run the gamut from bright red to blue, to black, with equally brilliant foliage.
Many are extremely cold hardy, to well below 0 degrees F, making them a great choice for USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 6 and colder.
Viburnums prefer sun to part shade, with a bit more shade further south. They are quite easy to grow, and are pest and disease-resistant to boot.
Native varieties, such as possum haw and arrowwood viburnum, provide food and shelter for wildlife, birds in particular. Many butterfly species depend on the leaves for food.
With so much going for them, viburnums deserve to be as common as hydrangeas in American gardens. Here are some of the best:
Viburnum carlesii: common name Koreanspice viburnum. 4 to 6 feet tall to 7 feet wide. Pink to white, intensely fragrant snowball flowers; the scent carries over distance. Reddish-purple fall color. Full sun to part shade, medium soil moisture. Tolerates black walnut. Zones 4 to 7.
V. davidii: David's viburnum. 3 feet tall to 4 feet wide. Flat-topped, white, slightly fuzzy flowers, followed by metallic blue fruits. Evergreen. Full sun to part shade, medium soil moisture. Need male and female plants to produce fruit. Zones 7 to 9.
V. dentatum: Arrowwood viburnum. 6 to 10 feet high and wide. Native. White spring flowers, followed by blue fruits that birds love. Red fall color. 'Blue Muffin' is more compact than the species. Full sun to part shade, medium soil moisture. Tolerates clay soil and black walnut. Zones 2 to 8.
V. lantana: Wayfaring tree. 8 feet tall and up to 10 feet wide. Fuzzy white spring flowers, red fruits in summer. Thick, leathery leaves turn purple-red in fall. Full sun to part shade, dry to medium soil. 'Mohican' is a cultivar. Zones 4 to 8.
V. nudum: Possum haw or smooth witherod. 5 to 12 feet high and wide. Native. Lacecap white fragrant flowers followed by berries that ripen from light pink to blue to purple-black. Maroon fall foliage. Full sun to part shade, medium to wet soil. 'Winterthur' is a cultivar that tops out at 6 feet tall. Zones 5 to 9.
V. opulus: Guelder rose or European cranberry bush. 8 to 15 feet tall and wide. Lacecap white spring flowers, cranberry-like red fruits in fall. Good fall color. Full sun to part shade, medium to wet soil. Zones 3 to 8.
V. prunifolium: Blackhaw. To 15 feet tall and 12 feet wide. Native. White flowers look like Queen Anne's lace. Blue-black autumn fruits; foliage turns shades of red and purple. Full sun to part shade, dry to medium soil. Zones 3 to 9.
Use viburnums in hedges and as a backdrop for other plants. One of their only downsides, that some become large and ungainly, is being addressed with the breeding of smaller, more compact cultivars.
Every garden is better with a viburnum or two in it. Plant a few different species and cultivars, some for fragrance, some for fall foliage, and some for wildlife, and make these shrubs the backbone of a garden design. You might not find viburnums in the garden department of your local big box store, but an online source or a good local garden center will have them. They are worth seeking out.
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