I would like to begin this post with a mention of a Horticulturist, the late Jim Cross, who started a wholesale nursery on Long Island called Environmentals back in the 70’s. Jim was one of those people who was so passionate about plants that he would often say, “let’s grab some sandwiches and coffee” and talk about Witch Hazels. Or Daphne. Or any underutilized plant that he felt needed to be more in the forefront of discussion.
This intro brings me to the point of this post, which is to promote Viburnums, a very underutilized genus of shrubs. By underutilized, people often over use a small number of the varieties available.
When I began at Sleepy Cat Farm, Viburnums were represented most prominently by a plant grouping in a corridor we call the Viburnum walk. This is a walkway planted with Viburnum plicatum var. tomentosum, the Double File Viburnum. In college we called this plant “Poor mans Dogwood”. Over the years I have seen the value of this plant—and its detriments. It suckers heavily and is difficult to make look graceful. Each year we remove most of the suckers on each plant, giving the plants a tree like appearance.
Double File Viburnum’s strength lies in its tolerance of shade. It performs quite well in the shade, to the point that it has become a nuisance by seeding itself around the 13 plus acre property.
There are better Viburnums out there, and we have begun representing them in our collections. Another of my plant mentors, Dr. Michael Dirr is also infatuated with the genus Viburnum. He once said to me, “let’s grab a sandwich and talk about Viburnums”… what is it about sandwiches and plant people?
So here are a few of our Viburnums… drumroll…
Viburnum x. burkwoodii. A glossy leaved moderate sized shrub with waxy, fragrant pink turning white flowers and a very refined growth habit. I have noticed that mild winters produce the best flowering Springs and decent fall color.
Viburnum dilatatum “Michael Dodge”. My lone rebellion planting along the Double file Viburnum walk. A yellow fruited Viburnum with a nice compact habit to 6 – 8 feet tall and wide. Also a tribute to another great plant guru, who designed and planted our Willow “fedge” enclosed berry garden (you can look that up). No offer of sandwiches here.
Viburnum x. rhytidophylloides “Allegheny”. This one has to be seen to be believed. In Spring it’s covered with flowers among its semi- evergreen leaves. Very tolerant of deep shade, it’s a bit leggy, and according to Dr. Dirr its flowers up close smell like sweaty gym socks. Our grove this Spring looks amazing.
Viburnum dentatum. A rather leggy plant, shade tolerant native which, unfortunately for us, suffers every year from Viburnum leaf beetle infestations. Periodically I remember to remove the egg masses from the twigs but often times forget and the plant defoliates. There is a variety called “Chicago Lustre”, which I would love to try but don’t see it available. Legend has it that the plants long straight stems were used to make arrows, hence the common name Arrowwood.
Viburnum nudum. I was excited to find this plant at a local nursery for a reasonable price. We already had the cultivar ‘Winterthur’ and are waiting for it to fruit. It benefits from another clone nearby to serve as a pollinator. In this case we have a dwarf cultivar called “Lil Ditty”. Where it was planted, the deer seem to nosh on it frequently, against its supposed deer resistant claim.
I recently located Viburnum nudum “Brandywine’. Like “Winterthur” it is native and possesses beautiful smooth toothless leaves with hints of red and green. Even better in the Fall, with multicolored fruit as well. A great native for attracting birds, this variety is better at pollinating itself than “Winterthur”, but will also increase fruit set on “Winterthur.” They seem to tolerate shade, but prefer moisture along with more sun.
Viburnum carlesii “Korean Spice Viburnum”. This Viburnum seems to be more of a one season plant, possessing a nice compact habit and wonderfully fragrant blooms which open in May. Plant them in the sun for best results. They have very little Fall color to speak of.
Viburnum plicatum “Roseum”. Unlike its cousin, the Double File Viburnum, this one has a similar growth habit but has green flowers opening to white that resemble small snowballs. Some refer to it as Snowball bush, which can be confusing because some Hydrangea are also called snowball bush. There are pink cultivars as well, but they do not flower as heavily.
Lastly, one of my favorites, added this Spring is Viburnum prunifolium Possumhaw or Black Haw. A gorgeous native treelike shrub with attractive fruit, nice flowers and excellent Fall color, the Holy grail of shrub like attributes. Great for wildlife.
On my way home via bicycle yesterday, I came upon a wonderful specimen of Viburnum sieboldii. Sleepy Cat Farm does not have one of these but they do make beautiful small trees and posses very large flat clusters of white and yellow stamened flowers covering the entire tree. In Fall, there are large clusters of red fruit and the color is not bad. The knock on this plant is the flowers have an unpleasant odor – gym socks again – but a worthy plant nonetheless.
There are many other Viburnums and cultivars which will grow here – too many to honor – a great plant for partial shade and moist well drained soil. I hope to track down Viburnum fragrans and some day do a video walk or class in early to mid May.