When I first heard Michael Dirr speak at Bailey’s Nursery in the summer of 2005, he mentioned two plants that every garden should have: hydrangeas and viburnums. He then went on to talk about the hydrangeas available for the market at that time. However, I prefer to talk about viburnums. There are so many wonderful options out there for viburnums, and so many cultivars, that it can be overwhelming to a first time gardener or landscaper. Choosing a viburnum comes down to bloom time, fragrance, winter characteristics, fall color, and berry color. For those of us in the central Great Plains, viburnums are a great choice. Most of them can take our full, hot summer sun and our stinging cold winters. They can handle a variety of soil conditions; from the heavy clays to the sandy loam river bottoms. They can also grow in part shade, and are drought tolerant. There really is one for every gardener.
In my landscape, I have three viburnums, two aliens and one native. I like the native viburnums for the insect species they support, and the berries they produce. Three of the most common native viburnums produce edible berries: arrowwood, cranberrybush, and blackhaw. I have a blackhaw viburnum in my landscape, which came back from nearly dead to full and vibrant this year. I also have a Korean spice and doublefile viburnum that I grew from seedlings that were weeds in landscapes. There are many species and hundreds of cultivars available on the market, but I prefer the following viburnums for use in our area.
Viburnum x carlesii The Korean Spice Viburnum is a large shrub with the best overall fragrance in the spring. It grows ten feet tall and ten feet wide, and is tolerant of full or part sun, and drought. As one of my favorites, it has excellent fall color, with reds and oranges.
Viburnum plicatum Japanese snowball bush viburnum is a favorite of Victorian gardeners for its fragrance and early spring blooms. It is smaller in habit and can take nearly full shade. It prefers moist conditions, but can take drought and heat. Best cultivars are ‘Popcorn’ and ‘Newport’.
Viburnum plicatum f. tomentosum Doublefile viburnums are considered to be small trees as opposed to large shrubs, and can be very lovely in the garden. They have a very spreading, horizontal growth habit and produce loads of fragrant white blooms mid spring. Fall color is burgundy. Best cultivars are ‘Shasta’, ‘Maresii’, ‘Summer Snowflake’, and ‘Roseum’.
Viburnum rhytidophyllum Leatherleaf viburnum is the closest to evergreen viburnums we can grow in our region. In mild winters, it stays a dark gray-green through till spring, while in very cold winters it loses some leaves and others turn brownish but still hold on. The leaves are large, and the plant may grow up to fifteen feet in some locations. It has white flowers in early spring followed by red to blue berries.
Viburnum dentatum Arrowwood viburnum is an excellent native shrub. This is the toughest viburnum for landscape use; it can handle all kinds of conditions. It has very straight, vertical habits, and produces creamy white flowers mid spring, which are followed by blue to black, edible fruits. The fall color is spectacular with oranges, reds, and yellows. Best cultivars include ‘Blue Muffin’, ‘Chicago Lustre’, ‘Deam’, ‘Papoose’, and ‘Moonglo’.
Viburnum lentago Nannyberry viburnum is another excellent native, with a large growth habit and cluster of berries. Average sizes range from twelve to sixteen feet tall and wide. However, they respond well to trimming and make great hedges. It is very adaptable, and produces white flowers mid spring, which are followed by blue to black fruits that the birds love.
Viburnum prunifolium Blackhaw viburnum has the best tasting edible berries of the viburnums, and the shiniest leaves. It has white flowers in the spring and red fall color. It can grow as large as twenty feet tall and wide, but many cultivars keep height down.
Viburnum trilobum The American cranberrybush viburnum was so named for its fruits’ similarities to the cranberry. This excellent shrub can reach ten feet tall and wide, and has wonderful red fall color. It produces abundant white flowers in early summer that are followed by red hanging fruits. A good cultivar is ‘Bailey’s Compact’.