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Flowering Shrubs: 10 Favorite Viburnums

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Flowering Shrubs: 10 Favorite Viburnums

If you want to start a horticultural fight, opine loudly at your next plant party about the best viburnums to grow. These flowering shrubs provoke strong opinions among the botanically inclined, and things could get ugly, fast. Dessert might be thrown. But consider our disciplined list of ten and hear us out. And bear in mind that there are almost 200 species to choose from, let alone cultivars and hybrids. Whether you want fruit, flowers, fall foliage (or all three), there is probably a viburnum for your gardening personality: extrovert, shy, down-to-earth, elegant, rambunctious, shape-shifting, or fragrantly alluring?

Here they are.

Photography by Marie Viljoen.

Above: Viburnum plicatum var. tomentosum ‘Summer Snowflake’.

But first: Why plant viburnums at all?

  • A range of sizes means that viburnums can stand in for trees in small spaces.
  • Multiple seasons of interest, from spring flowers to fall foliage and fruit (except in sterile species).
  • Flowering times that range from late winter to early summer, so you can build a collection.
  • The shrubs have interesting foliage with texture that rewards the detail-oriented gardener.
  • Viburnums that bear fruit offer ornamental interest in fall and winter, as well as food for the birds (and humans).
  • Kaleidoscopic fall colors, depending on the species you choose, and how much sun it receives.
  • Persistent winter fruits that feed birds when there is little else available.

1. Viburnum × bodnantense ‘Dawn’

Above: Viburnum × bodnantense ‘Dawn’ blooming as winter lingers.

At the end of winter, the exceptional fragrance of this tree-like hybrid viburnum is sweetly uplifting. It is a cross between V. farreri and V. grandiflorum, whose clusters of flowers start as deep rose-colored buds before paling in full bloom. The tubular flowers make you look twice, wondering whether a lilac has gone mad and erupted while there is snow on the ground. Flowering on bare branches, this earliest of viburnums is elegantly dramatic and more tolerant of frost than its grandiflorum parent. Usually sterile, few or no fruit will form, helping to ensure that this non-native viburnum does not spread. Viburnum × bodnantense is hardy from USDA zones 4 – 8.

2. Korean spice viburnum, Viburnum carlesii

Above: V. carlesii buds are pink, before opening into full-white bloom.
Above: The perfumed pom-poms of V. carlesii.

If scent is your thing, a must-have viburnum is the intensely fragrant Koreanspice. In mid spring its deep pink buds open into pale pink flowers that shift gradually into pure white. The flowers can be turned into an equally fragrant syrup, fermented wild soda, or perfumed honey (simply substitute the flowers in our Lilac Honey Recipe). Koreanspice is a slow-growing shrub that responds well to clipping (like a boxwood) and makes a showy ball of flowers when spring rolls round. Be sure to prune and shape it right after blooming, since all viburnums bloom on new wood (so, if you prune in fall, you will miss the next spring’s flowers). Extremely cold-hardy Viburnum carlesii is hardy from zones 2 – 8.

3. Chinese snowball, Viburnum macrocephalum var. macrocephalum

Above: Spring snowballs.

Chinese snowball viburnums have the largest, showiest, and, dare we say, the floofiest of all snowballs. These multi-flower globes give the tall shrub its species name: macrocephalum means large-headed. The immature flowers emerge as a luminous chartreuse before turning snowy-white. They are sterile, so there is no fall fruit, but also no spread (by berry-loving birds). As their common name describes, these dramatically floriferous viburnums are East Asian. Chinese snowball viburnum is hardy from zones 6 – 9

4. Japanese snowball, Viburnum plicatum var. plicatum

Above: Japanese snowball viburnum.

The easiest way to spot the difference between the two commonly named Chinese and Japanese snowballs is to look at their leaves. The prominent veins belong to the Japanese snowball, whose species name is plicatum, meaning pleated. Its flower clusters are smaller, too, but shown to very good effect against that backdrop of textured foliage. Japanese snowball viburnum is hardy from zones 5 – 8.

5. Doublefile viburnum, V. plicatum var. tomentosum

Above: Pleated leaves beneath double rows of flowers.

Doublefile refers to the way that the flowers are held in double rows above the tiered branches of this wide shrub. To be effective, doublefile viburnums need room to spread (sideways, rather than up). In late spring their lacecap flowers are magnificent. Hardy from zones 5 – 8.

6. European cranberry bush, Viburnum opulus var. sargentii

Above: European cranberry bush is in no way related to cranberries.
Above: Viburnum opulus var. sargentii ‘Onondaga’ is a pink form.

This widely adaptable viburnum has a very broad native range that includes Europe, North Africa, and Northeast Asia. European cranberry viburnum, sometimes called guelder rose, and sargent cranberry bush, is a large shrub, close to tree-like in size. The flat-topped flower clusters, where small fertile blooms are edged with larger white infertile flowers, are broad and bloom in mid to late spring. In fall, large, scarlet fruits ripen and persist through winter. They are edible and loved in Eastern Europe (this is the kalina of Russia and kalyna of Ukraine), but their smell is more of a stink and their raw flavor is bitter. This stink dissipates with long fermenting, so syrups and preserves are possible, but not for the faint of heart. The three-lobed, maple-like leaves leaves have rich fall color. Hardy from zones 3 – 7.

 7. Nannyberry, Viburnum lentago

Above: Native nannyberry is sometimes sold as a single-trunked specimen, and can masquerade as a tree.

An ideal shrub for nativists, nannyberry is another small tree lookalike that serves small spaces well. Its fluffy clusters of late spring flowers are followed in fall by edible blue fruits that taste sweetly like miniature prunes. These are attractive both to humans and to migrating birds. Nannyberry is hardy from zones 2 – 8.

8. Arrowwood viburnum, Viburnum dentatum

Above: Native arrowwood viburnum is a top pick for bird lovers.

Wildlife wants this one: For pollinator gardens and bird-friendly habitats, arrowwood viburnum offers flowers and appealing fruit. The late spring blooms are showy in an elderflower way, and are inviting to native bees and pollinators. The blue fruit that ripens in fall is irresistible to migrating birds and supports them on their long journey. It is exceptionally winter-hardy, from zones 2 – 8.

9. Blackhaw, Viburnum prunifolium

Above: Viburnum prunifolium‘s flower heads also resemble elderflower.

Blackhaw is another small-tree* candidate that birds, other wildlife, and humans find appetizing.  This native viburnum’s large clusters of tiny flowers give way to sweet, purple-black fruit in late summer and fall. With a broad natural range that extends all the way to Florida, blackhaw is hardy from zones 3 – 9.

* If you need larger viburnums to remain manageable, that is easily achieved by pruning. Remember to prune viburnums right after they have flowered, so that new wood forms for the following spring’s flowers.

10. Hobblebush, Viburnum lantanoides

Above: Hobblebush is edging onto native nursery lists.

On wooded slopes and beside clear streams, native hobblebush spreads arching branches that root where they touch the earth. Its leaves are velvety and immense (and vivid yellow in fall). Its flowers seem to float. Until recently hobblebush was only to be seen in the wild, but some native nurseries have begun to propagate this graceful native viburnum. Hobblebush is hardy from zones 3 – 7 (but will require sun protection in the warmer range).

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