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In the garden with Andrew: Versatile viburnums


A stroll around any residential area is likely to reveal many viburnums in the landscape. Collectively, they have been a popular shrub for more than 100 years. Many have been selected for the exceptional fragrance and others for their unequaled display of flowers. In recent years, there are several species and cultivars of native viburnums promoted to the public.

For clove-scented fragrance in April-May there are many exceptional viburnums. The Korean spice viburnum, Viburnum carlesii, is pink in bud and opens to tubular, fragrant white flowers. At maturity, it will reach six feet tall with an equal spread.

Similar in stature is the closely related Judd viburnum, Viburnum x juddii, which is a hybrid between V. carlesii and V. bitchiuense.

Larger in stature, but also with rounded clusters of white flowers, is Viburnum x carlcephalum ‘Cayuga,’ which reaches up to eight feet tall with an equal spread.

For very large stature, which can be used as a small flowering tree, is the Burkwood viburnum, Viburnum x burkwoodii, which is a hybrid between Viburnum carlesii and V. utile. The foliage on the Burkwood viburnum is attractive. The semi-evergreen leaves are shiny and narrow. At the Scott Arboretum at Swarthmore College, it is effectively used as an espalier whereby it’s trained closely to wall.

Espaliering is a pruning approach which enables the homeowner to have a large stature plant in a tight and congested location.

A wonderful old-fashioned viburnum is Viburnum macrocephalum, the Chinese snowball viburnum, a large stature multi-stemmed shrub or small tree reaching up to 20 feet tall.

In April the large ball-shaped clusters of white flowers emerge as lime green. As the flowers mature they turn to pure white and, as flowers start to fade, they return to a lime green color. There are few spring flowering shrubs that have the same “flower power” as this classic viburnum.

In recent years many of the native viburnums have become more coveted by gardeners. Many of the native viburnums have great spring flowers, followed by ornamental fruits, and most have exceptional fall color. Growing in the nearby woods are three native viburnums to this area, including the maple-leaf viburnum, Viburnum acerifolium; the arrowwood viburnum, Viburnum dentatum; and the blackhaw viburnum, Viburnum prunifolium.

The arrowwood viburnum, Viburnum dentatum, is a multi-stemmed shrub that grows in deep shade. In the spring, it has an abundance of dome-like white flowers. This shrub can reach up to 15 feet tall.

In late summer, it is covered in blue-black small fleshy fruits, which are a food source for native songbirds. In the fall, the leaves turn tones of yellow, red, and burgundy.

Chicago Lustre is a more compact selection and, because of its outstanding attributes, is a selection of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society Gold Medal Program.

Viburnum acerfiolium also grows in deep shade and, as the common name would suggest, it has a red maple-like leaf. In the fall, the leaves turn an attractive soft pinkish-orange. It, too, is a source of food with its late summer small black fruits for native birds.

Lastly, Viburnum prunifolium, while it can grow as an understory shrub, thrives better in more sun. This multi-stemmed shrub or small tree is covered in clusters of white flowers from late April to May. It is often found growing in thickets along the side of country roads. Reaching up to 15 feet tall it can be used as a small native tree. It is a great source of fruit for birds and has exceptional red to burgundy fall color.

Viburnums are a large, versatile group of ornamental plants providing fragrant flowers, ornamental fruits, and outstanding fall color depending on the selection. Almost all of the cultivars and species are durable in the landscape and only have a few pest and disease issues.

Andrew Bunting is vice president of horticulture at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and vice president of the Swarthmore Horticultural Society.

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