If you want to know the secret to creating an attractive garden, there is a one-word answer – ‘structure’. I don’t mean pergolas and gazebos, but structure from shrubs and small tree. A wide range of woody plants, of different heights, spread and appearance are needed to ‘paint a picture’ of a landscape in your garden. Often, though, it’s the last thing people look for, because we are often so obsessed with flowers. These are usually only around for a short part of the year – which remember has 52 weeks in it – but the physical presence of the plant is seen every day.
When it comes to building that structure in your garden, and having the bonus of flowers that range from ‘nice’ to ‘wonderful’, the group of shrubs called Viburnum has lots to offer, no matter where you live. There are deciduous and evergreen species, and the flowers are often wonderfully fragrant. As a bonus, many of them also produce red, black, and even blue berries in late summer and fall, and many have great fall colors too. So let’s take a look at these often-overlooked plants, and see just what they can do to give you a better, more interesting and varied garden – with structure.
Botanists recognize over 150 different species of Viburnums, which by the way are plants where the scientific name (Viburnum) is the same as the common name for them all, collectively. Individual species, though, often have interesting common names. All of them are woody shrubs, with a few big enough to rank as small trees. Most of them have simple leaves that are long ovals, but a few have ‘maple-like’ lobed leaves. If you aren’t sure what an unknown shrub is, check if the leaves are in pairs up the stems. If they aren’t, then it definitely isn’t a Viburnum – but if they are it could still be something else. They all live in the northern hemisphere, from China to America to Europe, with a few ‘outliers’ in South America and southeast Asia. In cooler areas they are usually deciduous, and in warmer areas evergreen. Most produce clusters of berries, usually red or black, and sometimes edible or with herbal value, while others are mildly toxic to humans, but not birds or pets. As always when trying to eat plants, make sure you have an accurate identification!
While botanists use DNA to analyze the relationships between different species, for gardeners we can think of Viburnums in a few simple ways, picking from their main features. So we might choose evergreen versus deciduous (often with fall color); those with great flowers; those with special foliage; those that have great berry displays; and those that are native to North America, making them great for natural gardening. Often a particular viburnum has several of these features, which makes them especially desirable. So let’s look at plants that are outstanding for one or more of these valuable garden features.
Meet Some of the Best Viburnums
Brandywine™ Viburnum (V. nudum ‘Bulk’) – for cooler zones, from 5 to 9, this is a deciduous species grown for its brilliant red fall colors and big crops of pink and dark blue berries. It’s a selected form of the native possumhaw, or withe-rod (speaking of exotic common names. . .), which grows all through the east, although now endangered in several states. A compact 6-footer, this is a terrific shrub for that structure we started out talking about.
Burkwood Viburnum (Viburnum x burkwoodii) – this is a super-tough shrub that grows just about anywhere – sun, shade, urban gardens, and more – so it belongs in every garden. Reaching as much as 10 feet tall, and hardy just about everywhere, it tends to be evergreen in warmer zones, while deciduous in cooler ones, with the bonus there of great dark-red fall coloring. Fragrant spring flowers and red berries that turn black, what more could you ask for in a shrub for garden structure?
Chindo Viburnum (Viburnum odoratissimum var. awabuki ‘Chindo’) – that is a mouthful of a name, but this terrific shrub, found in Korea, deserves it. For background in warmer zones, from zone 7 on, it sure is hard to beat its glossy foliage, fragrant white flowers and, yes, more red berries. Somewhat shade-tolerant it sure beats some boring evergreen that is nothing but evergreen leaves all year – aren’t we all tired of that look yet?
David Viburnum (Viburnum davidii) – at the other end of the hardiness spectrum is a great foliage plant. Hardy from zone 7 southwards, this beautiful plant is famous not only for the very handsome dark-green leaves, but for its spectacular blue berries. The leaves are leathery and up to 6 inches long, with three pronounced grooves along their length. It’s a great mounding shrub, about 3 feet tall and a little wider, that is a wonderful companion for azaleas and camellias in southern gardens. The leaves often turn deep burgundy over winter, and the sophisticated charm of the white flower heads in spring is a graceful addition to your garden. The famous turquoise blue berries can be hard to produce, and impossible with only a single bush. The so-called ‘male’ trees are hard to come by, but if you plant at least three you will probably get a good crop of berries on one or two of the bushes.
Moonlit Lace® Viburnum (V. davidii hybrid) – this great hybrid of the David Viburnum (with Viburnum tinus, another evergreen species) has similar foliage and mounding form, but more showy, ‘lacy’ flower heads. It could possibly be a suitable pollinator for the David Viburnum, so grow them near each other – they both like zones 7 to 9.
Prague Viburnum – this hybrid really did come from the European city of Prague, bred there in the 1950s by a gardener at the city’s nursery. It is that rare thing – a broad-leaf evergreen hardy in zone 4. The creamy-white flowers and red berries, still hanging at Christmas, are typical extra features we expect in a Viburnum.
Korean Spice Viburnum (V. carlesii) – one of the parents of the Burkwood Viburnum, this deciduous shrub is grown mainly for the powerful scent of the tight clusters of pale-pink to white flowers that bloom in early spring, on the bare branches. Fill your spring garden with a wonderful smell you will eagerly wait for each year. With dark-red fall colors and sometimes red berries, it doesn’t forget the rest of the year either.
American Cranberry Viburnum (Viburnum trilobum) – a great place to finish is with this native shrub that is great for colder zones, able to thrive even in zone 2. While most viburnums have long oval leaves, this one (as the name suggests) has rounded leaves with three broad sections, called ‘lobes’. Green all summer, they turn great shades of red and purple in fall, especially when growing in the sun. the white spring flowers are like small lacecap hydrangeas, and usually a big crop of bright red berries follows – so this is really a multi-featured species. The berries are edible when cooked, and make great jams and relishes. If you don’t pick them the birds will soon do it for you!
***If you want to check the availability of any of the plants mentioned here, go to our Viburnum Page. If, sadly, you find the item sold out, click on the ‘notify me’ box beside the size you want, and you will get an email the moment that plant is available again – it’s easy. Please contact our customer service for more information.