Japanese Snowball ViburnumViburnum plicatum var. plicatum
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Viburnum plicatum var. plicatum
Outdoor Growing zone
Full Sun, Partial Sun
The Japanese Snowball Viburnum is a classic deciduous garden shrub once more see in many gardens. It grows into a medium-sized to large shrub perfect for the back of beds and for filling corners, with its spread of 10 to 15 feet being matched by the same height. It can be kept shorter with pruning, if needed. The handsome dark-green leaves have an elegant look, and the cover the branches, which tend to grow horizontally, giving a tiered look to the plant. In fall they turn bold shades of red and burgundy, leaving the light-gray branches for winter interest. In late spring the branches are festooned with 3-inch diameter balls of pure-white flowers, bringing a gorgeous classic look to your garden. Grow it in foundation planting around your home, out in beds, or in informal woodland settings.
Plant the Japanese Snowball Viburnum in full sun or with partial shade, protected from hot afternoon sun. It grows best in rich, moist, well-drained soil that is acid or neutral, but established plants have reasonable drought tolerance. Untouched by the nasty viburnum leaf beetle, and generally free of pests or diseases. Some pruning after flowering can be used to encourage its attractive horizontal branching structure.
There is a bit of a myth around that early plant explorers were out in the wilderness, finding new and previously-unknown amazing plants. The truth is very different. Many of the early European botanists and naturalists who traveled to other countries, especially to Japan, were not allowed to move around much, so they quietly collected most of their plants at local nurseries – the Japanese had been gardening for centuries, after all, and had lots to choose from. That is how the first Japanese Snowball Viburnum arrived in England, where it was seen as an exotic ‘wild’ plant. It of course wasn’t, but a special selection by an unknown Japanese gardener. Coming to America about the same time, this attractive shrub, with its round flower heads of pure white, like small hydrangeas, was very popular from the late 19th to the middle of the 20th century. If you want an authentic period garden around your older home, this shrub is essential. But heck, let’s forget all this history stuff – this is a handsome garden shrub for mixed shrub beds, adding spring color, with beautiful leaves that turn burgundy and red in fall, and although not often available anymore, it is very worthy of a place in all gardens. It’s easy to grow too, and does well in difficult urban conditions. Interested? There are good reasons to be. . .
The Japanese Snowball Viburnum is a deciduous shrub that typically grows to about 10 feet tall and wide, although in ideal conditions it may in time reach 15 feet. The dimensions can be controlled to some extent with regular pruning. It forms a multi-stem bush, with a tendency for the branches to grow horizontally, something that can be accentuated by pruning. The bark on young stems is an attractive light gray, becoming darker and rougher with age. The relatively thick leaves are in pairs along the stems, up to 4 inches long, oval, with a neatly serrated edge and pronounced veins spreading from the mid-rib. They are semi-mat and soft to the touch, tending to hang downwards in an attractive way along the horizontal branches. They are a warm dark green, turning splendid shades of bright reds and rich burgundies in fall.
In late spring round balls of flowers, about 3 inches across, form at every leaf pair, with the balls also in pairs, decorating the branches in a charming way. The flowers are pure, snowy white. They last for several weeks, before fading and falling. The plant doesn’t produce any fruits. A bush in bloom in very attractive, with a classic look suggestive of historic gardens, and the blooms resemble small hydrangeas, setting the stage for the main hydrangea season to come. Butterflies are attracted to the blooms.
With its attractive leaves and beautiful early flowers, the Japanese Snowball Viburnum is an excellent background shrub for flower beds, behind smaller shrubs, roses, and hydrangeas. Its broad form fills corners well, and it is excellent positioned in the angles of walls. Grow it around your home, or out in beds, or in more natural, woodland settings, perhaps with azaleas, rhododendrons and camellias. When planting consider the future wide spread of this plant – allow for about 12 feet across. You could use some perennial plants or quick-growing shrubs to fill the space for a few years.
Fully hardy in zone 5, this shrub grows well in all but the hottest areas. In zone 9 in the southeast, it may be too hot, and the winters may not be cold enough to develop the flower buds properly.
Tolerant across a range of light conditions, the Japanese Snowball Viburnum grows well in full sun if the soil is not too dry, and in partial shade, favoring spots where there is shade during the hottest part of the day. It grows well in any well-drained soil, except for very alkaline and limestone soils, and wet, heavy clays. It does very well in the same conditions as azaleas, but is much more tolerant of neutral and slightly alkaline soils. Richer, moist soils give the best results, but established plants have reasonable drought tolerance and most gardens can support this plant with ease.
Generally free of pests or diseases, this plant is notable for being unaffected by the viburnum leaf beetle which is causing so much damage to other species in several parts of the country. So the Japanese Snowball Viburnum stays attractive through summer as an excellent background, even after it has flowered. Dead-heading isn’t necessary, but could be done for neatness, before flowers wither and fall naturally. Some pruning is recommended to maximize its beauty but isn’t essential in more informal settings. Prune immediately after flowering, by thinning out the side shoots on the main vertical stems to encourage long horizontal branches – which should not be trimmed unless absolutely essential. Shorten strong vertical shoots which rise too tall, cutting back to a pair of leaves while still young – they will shoot out sideways after that.
The Japanese viburnum, Viburnum plicatum, is sometimes called the double-file viburnum because of the pairs of flowers that form along the branches. It was first brought back from Japan in two forms, one with single flowers, originally called Viburnum tomentosum, and the other with double flowers, called Viburnum plicatum. Unfortunately there was a previous usage of ‘tomentosum’ for a viburnum, so the species became Viburnum plicatum, even though that plant was not found growing wild, but from a nursery. So today the ‘wild’ plant is Viburnum plicatum var. tomentosum, while the double flowered plant of gardens is Viburnum plicatum var. plicatum – the Japanese Snowball Viburnum. It first arrived in Europe in 1846, and again in 1860, and by the 1870s it was being widely grown in gardens. It was probably introduced directly into America from Japan around the same time. It became a feature of gardens in the late 19th century, and the first half of the 20th century, losing popularity with the introduction of so many new plants in the last 50 years. It’s a pity, because this is a beautiful shrub, and very valuable for its spring blooms.
Increasingly rare, the Japanese Snowball Viburnum deserves a place in every garden, especially if you have an older home, where you can be sure it was once grown. Its rarity means it won’t be with us for long, so order now and capture a little of the gardening past for a more beautiful future in your garden.