Viburnums are one of my very favorite shrubs for the garden because they just keep on giving. In spring, they produce masses of beautiful (and often fragrant) blossoms. In summer and fall they offer attractive foliage and a pleasing shape. And in winter, they stand out against the snow with bright, brilliant berries, many of which are also an important food source for birds and other wildlife.
With over 150 different species of viburnum to choose from, there is a species for almost every garden, from Zone 2 to Zone 9, shady to sunny, wet to dry. Many are native to North America, others to Eurasia and North Africa. Viburnums range in height from 2-30 feet tall and can be evergreen or deciduous, though most are deciduous.
Here are a few of my favorites:
Korean Spicebush Viburnum (V. carlesii)
One year, when I was away at college, my mom planted one of these in our back woodlot. When I got home in spring and stepped outside to reacquaint myself with her beautiful gardens, the delicious scent of the new Korean Spicebush almost bowled me over, and sent me scrambling back into the house to figure out what on earth that heavenly new plant was.
I have been a devoted fan ever since.
V. carlesii has pink buds that blossom into white and grows about 4-6 feet tall in an attractive, rounded shape. The leaves turn a lovely burgundy color in the fall. It is hardy to zone 4 in the United States, and prefers full sun or partial shade. Another Asian viburnum with outstanding fragrance is the Burkwood Viburnum (Viburnum x burkwoodii).
American cranberry bush (V. trilobum)
The American cranberry bush viburnum (also known as the Highbush Cranberry) is a cold-hardy native of the Northern United States and Canada. It does not tolerate climates warmer than zone 7 and prefers relatively moist conditions.
As you might guess from its name, Viburnum trilobum produces lots of attractive bright red berries that often linger throughout winter and even into early spring. They are an important late winter food source for birds, and are also edible for humans. They taste similar to the American cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon) grown as a commercial food crop and are especially popular for making jellies. The flowers are attractive, but the fall color is the real standout: a gorgeous, deep burgundy-red. V. trilobum grows about 8-12 feet tall, but a dwarf cultivar (V. trilobum “Compactum”) about 6 feet tall is available. Another native American viburnum with tasty fruits is the Squashberry (V. edule). The European Highbush cranberry (V. opulus) is also an attractive ornamental, but the fruits are too bitter to be edible to humans.
Doublefile Viburnum (V. plicatum tomentosum)
The spectacular Doublefile Viburnum is one of the most ornamental of an ornamental genus. A relatively large bush that grows 8-10 feet tall, with an even wider spread, this Eurasian native produces an explosion of snowball-shaped clusters of white or pinkish blooms in the spring. The bright red fall foliage is also extremely attractive.
Doublefiles prefer full or partial sun and well-drained, slightly acidic soils. They are not particularly tolerant of poor soils. They are hardy from zones 5-8.
Mapleleaf Viburnum (V. acerfolium)
Mapleleaf Viburnum is another native American viburnum with exceptionally beautiful fall foliage. It is hardy from zones 4-8 and grows about 6 feet tall. The black fruits are popular with many bird species, including robins, bluebirds, cardinals, thrushes, cedar waxwings, woodpeckers, and wild turkeys.
Arrowwood Viburnum (V. dentatum)
V. dentatum is one of the most versatile of our native North American viburnums. It tolerates full sun or shade, heavy clay or alkaline soils, and can be found from Canada all the way to Florida (zones 3-8). It is a larval food plant for several attractive butterfly and moth species and the deep blue fruit is popular with many birds. Relatively large, at 6-12 feet, Arrowwood viburnums are also commonly used as nesting habitat by some bird species.
Snowball Viburnum (V. macrocephalum)
Snowball viburnums (photo at the top of the page) are one of the most popular ornamental viburnums, and it’s easy to see why! In spring, they produce showy white flowers that cluster together in balls up to 8 inches across that look like big white snowballs. Snowball viburnums are natives of China and are not very winter hardy. In the United States, they grow only from zones 6-9. In suitable climates, they are easy to grow and tolerate a wide variety of soils, though their favorite is a moist but well drained, slightly acidic loam. Snowball viburnums are fast growing and can get up to 12 feet high. In the South, they are semi-evergreen and can grow even taller – up to 20 feet!
These are just a few of the many wonderful viburnums suitable for home gardeners. For a more complete listing, I recommend Viburnums: Flowering Plants for Every Season, by tree and shrub expert Michael Dirr.