Flower, fruit, foliage and form — whatever niche you are looking to fill in your garden, the viburnum may just hold the answer. This group of plants is vast and versatile, offering everything from the aristocrat to the woodland beauty, thus complementing both cultivated and naturalized palettes. While often overlooked and underutilized in the landscape, viburnums fuel a deep passion in gardeners familiar with them.
This group of large shrubs and small trees belongs to the Honeysuckle family and contains over 200 species native to the United States, Europe and Asia. Viburnums range in height from under 5 feet to over 25 feet, with a variety of interesting growth habits and branching structures. In general viburnums are pretty tough and are adaptable to most garden situations. They are suitable for sun or part shade (with better flowering given more sun) and can be selected for dry or moist soil conditions. Most noted for their flowers, which often last up to two weeks, viburnums come in two predominate forms — the snowball or the flat lacecap-like flowers. Although variable from species to species, the flower fragrance and abundance is the primary reason for having this plant in your landscape, given its incredible show-stopping displays in late spring and early summer. But second to that comes fall fruiting: Many plants have clusters of fruit that begin their late-season show with color displays of yellow to red to black. Birds relish the fruit; what doesn’t get eaten tends to persist colorfully into the early winter months. And don’t forget the foliage: Both deciduous and semi to evergreen, the foliage can be the deepest of green in the summer and turn the brightest of burgundy in the fall. Many of the newer selections are resistant to leaf spot, so the foliage stays clean and green all summer long, regardless of the conditions.
Because selecting which varieties to write about feels like choosing a favorite plant or a favorite child, I’ve decided to highlight (and tease your appetite) with the half-dozen plants that will be available at the French Broad River Garden Club’s annual plant sale on Saturday, April 29. The story shared by Barbara Veach — the garden club member who is spearheading the plant sale selections and who describes herself as a “true fan … almost nutty about them” — demonstrates what anyone’s journey would look like when stepping into the world of viburnums. It began with Mary Heirs’ suggestion that the viburnum would be a good feature plant for the 2006 plant sale, a thought seconded by Barbara’s mother-in-law, Jean, both knowledgeable gardeners. Encouraged by Jamie Oxley at We-Du/Meadowbrook Nursery, who spoke of viburnum durability and ease of culture, Barbara ventured on and began the difficult selection process. In this she looked for plants and the particular traits (fragrance, flowers, foliage, fruiting and nativity), performance and availability that represent the diversity and versatility of this plant group. Below are the selections and their key attributes:
* Mohawk viburnum is a cultivar of the Burkwood viburnum (viburnum X burkwoodii) and is best known for its spicy clove fragrance emitted from long-lasting snowball flowers that are pink in bud and then open to white. This plant is deciduous, with disease-resistant lustrous green foliage that turns bright orange-red in the fall. Great as a specimen or the shrub border, plant Mohawk where you will pass it by and take in its inviting late spring aroma. Full sun and well drained soils will keep this plant happy and floriferous. A 1993 Gold Medal Plant Award winner!
* Prague viburnum is the result of a hybrid cross (viburnum rhytidophyllum X viburnum utile) and is cold hardy and fast growing, making it a good fit for a screen or background mass planting, a use aided by its dark glossy evergreen foliage that remains clean and consistent through the year. Fragrant May flowers start pink in bud and open to white. This plant is tolerant of drought once established and will grow 10 feet high and 10 feet wide.
* Winterthur viburnum is a cultivar of our native Smooth Witherod (viburnum nudum) and may be one of the best all around shrubs if you are limited on space. It is deciduous and especially noted for its spectacular large multicolored fruit clusters of bright pink, red, blue and purple, luring birds from far and near. Fall foliage is brilliant red to red-purple and flowers are lacecap in form of creamy-white. This plant, which can be grown as a small specimen tree reaching 10 feet is rumored to be self-sterile, so be sure to include the straight species as a pollinator in order to catch the incredible fruit display. Winterthur viburnum has been selected as a Blue Ribbon Winner by The North Carolina Arboretum and has received both the Gold Medal Award from the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society and the Theodore Klein Plant Award.
* Japanese Snowball viburnum (viburnum plicatum) is often called around here the Snowball Bush and is known for its abundant large white snowball-shaped flower display in May. Reaching over 10 feet tall, this plant has a nice upright habit making it a good selection for a specimen planting. In the fall, the coarse foliage turns a nice dark red color, finishing the season with a flare.
* Emerald Lustre viburnum, a cultivar of the Georgia native Bracted viburnum (viburnum brateatum), is deciduous with lustrous dark-green summer leaves turning yellow-bronze in the fall adding pizzazz as a backdrop to the fall display of bright blue-purple fruiting clusters. Very heat, wind and drought tolerant, this 10-foot-tall shrub is durable and quite functional in any garden.
* Dart’s Duke viburnum, a cultivar of the Lantanaphyllum viburnum (viburnum X rhytidophylloides), grows into a large upright shrub with an arching habit, and has dark green leathery, semi-evergreen to evergreen leaves. It is most noted for its masses of flowers that individually are often 8-10 inches across and its heavy clusters of bright red fruit. Allegheny is a common cultivar and an all-around great performer known for its cold hardiness and leaf-spot resistance. Both are great for screening, grouping and background use.
* Mary Milton viburnum, a pink cultivar of the Japanese Snowball (viburnum plicatum), is considered an old-fashioned plant making a comeback on the market. Known as Pink Japanese Snowball, this showstopper is described as being loaded with small, pink snowball-shaped flowers in the spring. I have never seen this one and am puzzled by the conflicting literature, and how the flowers open white and fade to pink … or is it the other way around? Help! I am getting confused and suddenly overcome with Viburnum fever! Nonetheless I am sure you won’t be sorry with its pink display and upright habit.
After reading this, if you are hooked and want to experience a full-blown garden frenzy and learn even more about the viburnums described here, visit the French Broad River Garden Club’s annual spring plant sale on Saturday, April 29, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Clem’s Cabin at 1000 Hendersonville Highway. You will have at your fingertips this year’s featured viburnums, as well as encore hellebore and camellias (featured plants from recent years). Local growers will also be available selling an array of native shrubs, trees and perennials and other garden-worthy beauties, ready to satisfy your planting hunger.
If you can’t make it, be sure during the next six-to-eight weeks to pay attention to the luscious white flowering shrubs shining in area gardens and landscapes. These are the viburnums; they are calling you, calling you to explore, learn and plant them for their versatility, their diversity and their beauty. You will not be disappointed.
[Alison Arnold is director of horticulture at The North Carolina Arboretum.]