At Home in the Garden
Learning to love viburnum
A group of plants that's both loved and hated is viburnum. An especially strong memory of mine comes from a college internship at Bernheim Arboretum. On the hottest day that summer, we were sent in to prune the dead wood out of the viburnums. There is nothing like spending a humid 100-degree day climbing in and out of a viburnum collection. This was my first experience with the way young foliage can make you itch until you can't think straight.
While that foliage originally prejudiced me against viburnums, it has become one of the strongest appeals. The leaves are richly textured. Some varieties are evergreen while others have great fall color, usually red. In general they are tough and have relatively few pest problems. The many shapes and sizes available makes them suitable for so many different garden spaces. The consistent blooming and fruiting almost seem secondary to their excellent drought tolerance. Viburnums are not showy; instead, their beauty is subtle, strong, and consistent in even the harshest landscape situations.
There are more than 150 species of viburnum available today. Choosing one for your landscape can be difficult, but the easiest way is to start narrowing it down by characteristics. Viburnums range in size from 2 feet to 30 feet high, the flowers are generally white, and some smell sweet and spicy while others are offensive or have no scent at all. Fruit color can be yellow, orange, red, blue, or black and leaf size can range from 1 to more than 3 inches.
If you are looking for a nice small flowering tree for your landscape, the Southern Black Haw viburnum, Viburnum rufidulum, with its glossy dark-green leaves is an excellent choice. This native plant can grow 20 feet high and equally wide and is commonly found growing on dry slopes throughout Kentucky. The bluish-black fruit is a favorite food for wildlife.
The best compact viburnum has to be Viburnum x burkwoodii Conoy, growing only about 4 feet tall and up to 6 feet wide. This drought-tolerant plant has glossy evergreen foliage. The flowers are smaller than many of the larger viburnums, but they are slightly fragrant and last for a long time on the plant.
Many people are interested in the fragrant viburnums; their sweet smell can be sensed for some distance beyond the planting, making them very popular around decks and patios. While the most popular fragrant one available is Viburnum carlesii-Koreanspice viburnum-a better choice for most gardens is Viburnum x burkwoodii Mohawk. This is a cross between carlesii and burkwoodii, growing about 6 feet tall with fragrant flowers that are dark-red in bud and white when open.
The best fruiting viburnum without a doubt is Viburnum setigerum-Tea viburnum. It has an upright-arching habit that gives it a clean, graceful appearance. The bright-red fruits are numerous on the plant, coloring up in the fall and holding well into early winter. Unfortunately this one can be more difficult to find in the nurseries.
The winner for outstanding fall color is Viburnum nudum Winterthur. I have mentioned it many times in the past and it is probably the reason I began rethinking how I use and recommend viburnums. Its intense pure-red fall color is amplified by the glossiness of the foliage, the glossiest I think I have ever seen.
Everyone is looking for that perfect plant to form a hedge for their landscape. I like to use all kinds of plants and prune them into a hedge, but the prettiest and easiest to maintain is Viburnum x rhytidophylloides Allegheney. This semi-evergreen plant grows 10 to 12 feet tall, making it the perfect height for most screens. Its dense leathery leaves are especially effective at hiding even the most awful site.
It seems forever now since those intern days. I learned to be prepared, and now I never go anywhere without a wind suit and a long-sleeve shirt stuffed in my pack in case I have to prune some viburnum on the spur of the moment. As a gardener, I know I am softening up a little since my college days: this spring I am replacing some Inkberry holly with fragrant viburnum in my garden.
Best Viburnum Picks
Best Fall Color-Winterthur
Easiest to Maintain-Allegheney
Small Flowering Tree-Southern