Autumn is a season that many of us view with a mixture of joy and dread. The rainbow of foliage colours is usually particularly satisfying at this season of fading flowers and shortened days, and among the deciduous allstars of fall colour are the Viburnums.
Many of us think automatically of the snowball bush (V. opulus) when viburnums are mentioned, to which I go ick,pooh, yuk! I’m not crazy about this species because it’s very prone to attack from pests, and I don’t find the plant all that interesting. But that’s a personal taste—and what in gardening isn’t personal?
For our garden, I initially tended toward native species because birds love them so much and I was sure of their hardiness in my yard. In the past few years, emboldened by success with a doublefile and a fragrant species, I'm intent on adding others to the mix around our property.
Viburnums come in a dizzying number of species and cultivars, and I don’t profess to be an expert where they are concerned—just that I love them, which is a good start. You do have to watch the hardiness zones, as some are very frost tender here and aren't suited for the colder areas of the province. But we have plenty of choices for our gardens.
There are two of the more ornamental (i.e. commercially easily found) viburnums I couldn’t be without: the doublefile viburnum, (photo above) with its pagoda-like structure and lacey white flowers. There are several different cultivars available--I've pretty much decided mine is 'Summer Snowflake' rather than 'Mariesii'.
Since the only thing better than one doublefile viburnum is two, I've pretty much decided that next year, I'll add 'Newport' doublefile to the back garden too. I saw it showing off its fall colour at a friend's recently, and that was enough for me.
I love the fragrant viburnums, and have a hybrid Carlecephalum near my office window, where its fragrance can lull me in late spring and early summer. The fun thing with these shrubs is that you can tell this autumn what next year's bloom will be like, because the flower buds are large and obvious now. It's been so windy the past few days, I haven't gone out to take photos, however, so you'll have to take my word for it for now.
I really like V. 'Onondaga' which has great burgundy bronze colour in its new spring growth, and in its flower buds too. It has lobed leaves something like a highbush cranberry, and also has flowers somewhat similar to the doublefile or highbush cranberry viburnums, flat clusters of lacy white blooms.
Some years, we don’t get a huge amount of fall colour from our viburnums, mostly because that ever-present wind rips leaves from many of our shrubs and trees before they can get really going. However, where we lose the foliage show sometimes, the fruit of the shrubs remains colourful, and provides much-needed food for birds, which are a major part of our garden.
V. nudum var. cassinoides is the Witherod or wild raisin (photo above), a native shrub that has reddish foliage in spring and gorgeous red to purple fall foliage. White flowers in the spring give way to pink fruits that eventually turn deep rich blue, before the birds swoop in to dine on them all. It was one of the first shrubs I learned to recognize as a child, although I thought the berries were toxic, probably because they are almost the same shade of blue as Clintonia.
Viburnum dentatum or arrowwood (photo at top of post) is a tough, winter hardy species that works well as a tall hedging or screen plant for a windbreak as well as having ornamental qualities. Its common name comes from the fact that its straight stems were formerly used by First Nation peoples for the shafts of their arrows. Arrowwood has blue-black fruits in the fall and foliage that varies from yellow to coppery orange and red. 'Chicago Luster' and 'Blue Muffin' are two popular cultivars of this native shrub.
V. trilobum, the highbush cranberry, is not a cranberry at all but is a native shrub in much of Atlantic Canada. It’s attractive as a specimen plant or even as a hedge, and its white blossoms are followed by blood red, fleshy fruit and red-purple autumn colour. Although the species grows to twelve feet tall, the cultivar ‘Compactum’ reaches only half that height.
If you're looking for an excellent book on the wonderful Viburnums, do check out Michael Dirr's excellent reference book by the same name. Published by Timber Press (of course), it's an invaluable reference book, written in Dirr's wonderfully encouraging and chatty style, and illustrated numerous photographs as well as with paintings done by his wife. Just be aware--viburnums can be habit forming.
Have you been lured into the wonderful world of viburnums yet?