20 October 2010

Viburnums for Autumn Brilliance

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?


  1. Hi Jodi, i dont know what Viburnums are but every part of the plant is certainly beautiful. And you captured that elegance very well. Those leaves at the first photo really seem lonely, maybe their days are already numbered. But they surely exhibit their best so we will miss them.

  2. Oh Jodi, I love your viburnums! Yes, we been lulled, a few years ago we were on a spree, adding many here, mainly for the berries for the birds. Fall leaf color was secondary, if considered at all. I love your photo of the buds reddening with the leaves! What a wonderful sight to get one through the winter. Our continuing drought has killed several shrubs already, with more to succumb. I am thinking of native Viburnums as replacements, like V.x rhytidophylloides 'Alleghaney'. They have done well enough without any water under tall moisture sucking pines. Thanks for recommending these wonderful shrubs, there should be some that are right for most areas. :-)

  3. I have quite a few viburnums in the garden. They are so hardy here. I love seeing the berries and the animals love eating them plus they are so beautiful when they bloom. A better shrub can hardly be found. I can see yours are a little further along than ours in the leaf color. No frost here yet.

  4. I love viburnums. There was a beautifully fragrant one that bloomed in February on the West Coast (although I don't know the name) which I miss seeing here in the maritimes. I've contented myself with several highbush cranberries instead but I'm thrilled to know there's more available that will live in this climate.

  5. You are feeding my plant envy, Jodi:) I have been wanting a viburnum for years but have been waiting for Husband to clear an area so I can plant one...or two...or three... The 'Ononodaga' is one I've particularly admired in the nurseries--such beautiful fall color!

  6. What a glorious selection of viburnums you show us! I have the doublefile, and love it too, but I also have one you didn't profile: V. prunifolium, or Blackhaw. I like it because it gets more tree-like. But it's been slow to start for me... very little fall color yet, and few blooms or berries. I'm waiting. Your specimens are absolutely stunning for both color and berries, and for overall impact!

  7. Beautiful, jodi! I especially like 'Onondaga'. We have several viburnums here, including 'Blue Muffin', which lost all its leaves weeks ago, due to the drought. I bought 'Summer Snowflake' several years ago, but it hasn't done much. It needs help in some way, but I'm not sure what! I may move it next spring.
    I have an unknown variety that is a gorgeous shade of burgundy right now. That one trudges right along, but every year has dead branches that I have to cut out and it's not all that large of a shrub anyway.
    Sounds like I have viburnum issues, doesn't it? LOL. Still, I love them!

  8. I love Viburnums too Jodi! So too the many birds that enjoy their fruit. I love the bronze red foliage this time of year. Lovely post of your treasures now and while blooming. Great book suggestion.

  9. I adore viburnums, too, and will definitely check out that book. At my long lost lake house I've a doublefile viburnum that's now about 8 years old and huge. I LOVE that plant! It must be beautiful now. Wah! Must Get Another One! Great pics and wonderful suggestions. Thanks!

  10. Dear Jodi, Yes, I do so love Viburnums since they offer such variety that there is usually one to suit any situation. My favourite is V. 'Mariesii' as I am enchanted by its 'wedding cake' habit. it is, for me, a most elegant shrub.

  11. Great photos... I am also a writer, but not a good photographer... fortunately I get a good photographer doing my books....

    I must get into gardening, I have been away 7 months and I have so many weeds, looking at your photos is an inspiration to get moving :-)


    Follow you...

  12. Dear Jodi, I learned so much from this post. Now you have me hooked. Look out for some new additions to my garden next spring. Pam x

  13. I also learned a lot from this post Jodi. Thank you. The colors and the photos are excitingly red and lucky you, to have some berries as ours are gone in a flash with the birds. One we do have is called Viburnum plicatum Shoshoni, which, while lovely this time of year, has not shown much growth since planting six years ago or more.

    Thanks also for the book link..will have a look for that and maybe inside, I can find help for Shoshoni.

  14. This is one genus I really really love. I've added a good half dozen or so to my garden just this year. The drought has made it mighty tough to keep them alive but I'm hopeful they will establish and get big and beautiful like yours. I too have Dirr's viburnum book. I like it because it supplements his Woody plants book for me. It is like the only book that lists 'Mt. Airy' as a cultivar of viburnums and that one has done fabulously in my garden-got me hooked on more along with the doublefiles that everyone without fail loves. Thanks for highlighting. You have such incredible berries. That is something lacking on my viburnums but hopefully I now have the right mix. Have a fabulous weekend. And I love your comment about what about gardening isn't personal? That is the truth!


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