Writing about Viburnums feels a bit like being madly in love and bringing the object of my affection home to meet the family for the first time. I am anxious for you to love this incredible group of shrubs as much as I do. I’m not exactly sure why. As every gardener knows, beauty is in the eye of the beholder – or the one that be holding the hoe. Still, if you are familiar with Viburnums I bet you already love them and if you aren’t I just know that you will once you get to know them better.
While most shrubs offer up the standard summer green leaves, bashfully reserving their more colourful displays for the fall, the Viburnum prances onto the summer stage crackling with colour in shades of red, green, burgundy and copper before building to a breathtaking climax of vibrant reds and oranges in the autumn.
As if the foliage isn’t enough to get you digging a welcome home hole, Viburnums also produce blossoms in the spring – usually of the lace cap kind – which in turn give way to autumn berries that mature to red, blue, black or yellow depending on the variety. Viburnum blooms and berries can be pleasantly fragrant, offensively foul, or have no odour whatsoever.
The first fall in our previous home we stepped outside and came to the conclusion either a moose had met its demise in the nearby woods and was now in full rot or we had a malfunctioning septic tank we knew nothing about. Then a neighbour stopped by, took a whiff and said, “Ah, you know fall is really here when the cranberries start to smell.”
I am not sure how I managed to live in this area my entire life and spend so much time hiking its hills and dales without ever smelling High Bush Cranberries Viburnum trilofum before, but such was the case. After 16 years of living on the edge of a forest jam packed with them I soon learned, like my neighbour, to associate the wet sock smell with the pleasant things of autumn.
It also helped that High Bush Cranberries are at their most beautiful in the fall. The sight of aspens dripping in lemon leaves with all those scarlet cranberry bushes snuggled up to their ankles splattered with red juicy berries makes you forget all about their shortcomings in the olfactory area.
It just occurred to me that telling you something stinks for a couple weeks every fall isn’t the best way of promoting it. Keep in mind we literally had thousands of High Bush Cranberries around our place; I doubt having one or two in your yard would produce enough scent to bother anyone. And it’s the berries that smell, not the bush itself. If your sniffer is really sensitive, you could always remove the berries and toss them in the compost. But that would be a pity.
Not only do the berries provide a welcome source of winter food for the birds, they make surprisingly delicious juices, sauces and jams despite their offensive smell.
Or you could choose a different Viburnum. There are plenty to pick from. Like Hydrangeas, Hostas and Clematis, Viburnums fall into that dangerous category that can make an obsessive collector out of you. Ah, well. There are worse things you could do with your time and money.
Here are just a few good oldies but goodies to get you started.
Bailey Compact Viburnum Trilobum ‘Bailey’
This dwarf compact shrub matures at 1.5 metres (5 feet) high with a 1 metre (3 foot) spread. It produces oodles of white blossoms in the spring followed by flashy fire-engine-red berries in the fall that stick around to add dramatic contrast to the winter garden as well as welcome nourishment for the birds. Excellent display of crimson fall foliage. Prefers full sun but will tolerate part shade. Hardy to Zone 2.
Blue Muffin Arrowwood Viburnum dentatum ‘Christom’
This Proven Winner makes a beautiful stand alone shrub for your yard or in larger numbers can be a great choice for an attractive and unique hedge. Masses of white spring blossoms turn into healthy clusters of intensely coloured blue fruit set against glossy green foliage. The berries are great for birds but considered inedible by humans. Matures into a perfect hedge height of 1.2 metres (4 feet) but there have been reports of it attaining greater stature in warmer climates. Hardy to Zone 3.
Alfredo Compact Cranberry Viburnum Trilobum ‘Alfredo’
Alfredo is a smaller version of the High Bush Cranberry but with the same exquisite red autumn foliage. This heavily leafed variety shimmers with lush summer foliage before turning a gorgeous red come fall. However, this abundance of lush foliage comes at a sacrifice of fewer blossoms and fruit than other Viburnums. Alfredo is extremely hardy and can withstand a wide variety of soil conditions ranging from clay to loam. Will grow well in either full sun or part shade. Another great choice for a hedge but looks equally eye-catching all by itself. Reaches 1.2 to 1.5 metres (4 – 5 feet) high. Zone 2.
Garry Pink Cranberry Viburnum Trilobum ‘Garry Pink’
Garry Pink is yet another version of the High Bush Cranberry but there is nothing compact about it. This Viburnum discovered in Fort Garry, Manitoba reaches an impressive 2.4 to 3.4 metres (8 – 12 feet) high! In cool, moist springtime conditions it produces beautiful pink blossoms, however hot and dry weather will result in blooms of mostly white. In the fall its berries turn a rich red while its foliage morphs into an eye fetching orange.
Snowball Viburnum opulus ‘Roseum’
Snowball’s name is a reference to the appearance of its blooms not an affection for cold weather. In fact, Snowball grows best in sheltered, sunny locations. But oh the blooms it produces! In early spring it is covered with huge balls of rich white flowers. Usually matures at a height of 1.5 to 1.8 metres (5 – 6 feet) but there have been reports of bushes lunging up to 3 – 3.4 metres (10 – 12 feet) high in ideal conditions. An old heirloom favourite in many parts of England. Unfortunately it can also be a favourite with aphids. Hardy to Zone 3.
Nannyberry Viburnum Lentago
Popular in public parks this Viburnum is more of a tree than a shrub with a tall trunk that becomes gracefully grooved and gray with age and all of its foliage displayed on its upper half. Typically grows to both a height and width of 3.4 metres (12 feet) although in ideal conditions it can get much bigger. A Nannyberry in Oakland County, Michigan is reported to be an astonishing 15 metres (50 feet) high by 12 metres (40 feet) wide! Cream coloured blossoms turn into plump berries that wander their way through the colour wheel as the season progresses, starting out green and then turning yellow, pink, rose and finally a deep bluish black. The leaves are equally colourful in the fall, coming in vibrant shades of lemon, ruby and plum. This Canadian native is hardy to Zone 3.
If you want to learn more about Viburnums Michael A. Dirr has a wonderful book titled “Viburnums; Flowering Shrubs for Every Season.” Packed with over 400 coloured photographs and detailed descriptions of almost 200 different Viburnums this book is a must for any Viburnum lover’s list.