viburnums: think fall (yes, fall)
NO, I HAVE NOT GONE MAD when I say it’s time to think fall—and winter, and summer—and most definitely not just spring. Nursery shopping is especially treacherous after a long winter’s nap; the early bloomers will seduce you, and your garden will tell the tale of your foolish seduction forever more. The antidote: learning to shop for the elements of a multi-season garden—that is, one that offers interest any day of the year, even in a cold climate like mine. This is the first in a series of posts on that topic—one of gardening’s most important lessons.
‘V’ Is for Viburnum
To create a year-round garden, I recommend starting your shrub shopping in the “V” aisle, for Viburnum. It was the stately doublefile viburnum (Viburnum plicatum tomentosum), that got me started in this outstanding genus of flowering and fruiting shrubs, so many of which are good in bloom, in fruit, and colored up in fiery fall foliage. The doublefile (bottom photo) is a plant whose habit of growth is so distinctive I could not help but notice. It stands with its branches held straight outward, like so many arms outstretched, and in spring they are completely covered with white flowers.
The variety ‘Watanabe’ blooms off and on all season, May through summer’s end—how many other shrubs promise that? It is a compact version of the doublefile, reaching only 6 feet or so, an outstanding choice for smaller yards. If you can take the larger scale, the varieties ‘Mariesii’ and ‘Shasta’ (the most horizontal) are recommended. The doublefiles have another feature: handsome fall color, from a burnished wine color to smoky purple—another reason to include one in the landscape.
Today I either possess or covet many Viburnum cousins, like the highly fragrant V. carlesii, the Koreanspice viburnum, with daphnelike fragrance from barely pink-flushed white flowers in late April. You can smell it across the yard even when it is young; by the time this rounded plant reaches maturity, you will smell it down the road. V. x juddii, Judd’s viburnum, is also highly perfumed (carlesii is one of its parents), as is V. burkwoodii.
In moister spots try the European cranberrybush viburnum, V. opulus, with maple-shaped leaves that have a reddish fall cast, and red fall fruit. Its native counterpart is V. trilobum, another informal shrub with bright fruit.
Some Are Evergreen
I also have grown a couple of rangy plants of a hybrid viburnum called V. rhytidophylloides. The foliage is semi-evergreen—more so in climates warmer than mine, half so here. There are less coarse evergreen viburnums, including thje leatherleaf viburnum (V. rhytidophyllum, a parent of the former) and V. pragense, another of its offspring whose leaves are smaller and lustrous.
In recent years I have added and added: yellow-fruited V. dilatatum ‘Michael Dodge;’ V. dentatum ‘Blue Muffin’ (guess what color the fruit is?), and V. nudum ‘Winterthur,’ with blue fruit and excellent fall color.
The only complaint I have with viburnums, and it is not really a complaint as much as an observation of a bird-lover who also likes plants for her own visual treat: Sometimes the fruit doesn’t last long enough to even ripen fully, let alone hang on to late fall. Viburnums are like giant bird feeders, and no matter how big they can be picked clean in a flash.
I am told that a couple of species fare better against the hungry creatures, including ‘Michael Dodge’ and V. dilatatum ‘Erie’ or just plain V. dilatatum. The tea viburnum, V. setigerum, is tall and leggy, and when its branches are laden with fruit they actually bend toward the ground. It has become one of my favorites. With that much of a crop, perhaps there will be enough for my visual feast in fall and the birds’ gustatory one. Shop for them at local nurseries, or look online at mail-order nurseries like Digging Dog and Rare Finds (both in the Resources list).