great shrub: koreanspice viburnum, v. carlesii

Viburnum carlesii

WHEN WOODY PLANT EXPERT MICHAEL DIRR writes in his book “Viburnums” that the fragrance of the Koreanspice viburnum, Viburnum carlesii, “actually reaches out and engulfs passersby,” he is not exaggerating. This is a smell-it-a-mile-away shrub that I would not garden without, and it’s currently doing its engulfing thing here. Delicious.

The Koreanspice viburnum, as its common name suggests, is native to parts of Korea and Japan, but has been cultivated for more than a century as garden plant in the West. Besides its incredible fragrance, as powerful as any Daphne but maybe spicier, and flowers that fade from pink or reddish buds to the palest pink or white, it has red-fading-to-black late-summer fruit followed by and red fall foliage.  The shrub is generally rounded in habit, about as wide as high.

V. carlesii is tough, even tolerating some shade, and though the species (hardy Zone 4 or 5 to 8) can get to more than 10 feet high or slightly larger, there are more garden-worthy choices offering bigger blooms and better bud color besides an improved, more compact habit.

This is a year of big renovations in my garden, including the removal of many too-far-gone woody things, and I am thinking of adding another V. carlesii in one now-empty space.  If so, I’ll seek out a named cultivar, rather than the species, perhaps ‘Diana’ or ‘Aurora,’ both about 6-8 feet high and wide, or if it’s to go in one new cozy little spot I have my eye on, perhaps ‘Compactum’ (at only 3-4 feet high and wide in maturity). Even at that size, it promises to sends its seductive scent out to grab me well across the yard.

extending that fragrance

VIBURNUM CARLCEPHALUM, a somewhat coarser hybrid creature that counts Viburnum carlesii as one of its parents, blooms a bit later, so if you want an extended period of this perfume, perhaps that’s the ticket. I had one but put it in a spot where its somewhat rangy habit wasn’t suitable, and away it went after a few awkward years. I’m thinking it might be time to give one a new, less prominent place in the garden. Or maybe I’ll try ‘Cayuga,’ technically a backcross between the hybrid and its carlesii parent. So many viburnums…

  1. Harry says:

    Can you please advise how do you usually care your Koreanspice viburnum, v. Carlesii. How often do you water in summer, fertilize, prune. How long did it take to grow to a 4 feet tall size. I have two in my yard, one is doing fine, growing slowly but other one has very small size leaves, when bought them 2 years back, both had same size leaves & were healthy. Thank you.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Harry. I don’t do much of anything to it, frankly. If one is not doing well, it may have suffered root damage during transplant or be in a spot that in some way is more difficult (too wet, too dry, rocky underneath, animals burrowing beneath it…) than the more vigorous plant has experienced. Sometimes I dig up ailing plants and examine their root systems and the hole/below them and try again, to tell the truth. Sometimes there is no other way to tell what’s going on underground, if a plant is limping along. I have found vole and mouse damage to the trunks, root damage, and such things this way. Extreme, perhaps, but if it isn’t thriving anyhow…

  2. Laurie Collins says:

    Hi Margaret,

    I’m just beginning my journey into the world of Viburnums. I bought two not realizing they need other viburnums to pollinate. I currently have a carlesii and a dilatatum ‘Cardinal Candy’ and was wondering what would be compatible viburnums for those to pollinate? I have a sunny location and don’t want to get too crazy with size. I read somewhere about a burkwoodii that had a backcross of carlesii. Does that mean that particular burkwoodii would be compatible? Any pointers would be appreciated. Thanks! Laurie

  3. Alison says:

    Hi Margaret–

    Other viburnums are leafing out but my KS, which planted thanks to you and moved early last fall, isn’t. I discovered that my cat has been sharpening her nails on one of several lower thick stems (trunks?). Is that the kind of damage you refer to above that might kill the bush?

    PS: I’m having trouble loading your site and it might be the animated ad on the upper right under the calendar–just though you might like to know.

  4. Patti says:

    I would like to get dwarf korean spice viburnum but I can’t find when to plant. We are in zone 4-5. Can you help?
    Thank you

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Patti. Spring or early fall — and I bet you can get away with mid-fall or even later, but better to be safe and give it a little time to start rooting in. So as soon as any lingering summer heat begins to dissipate, go for it…and kept it watered till hard frost.

  5. Darla Anderson says:

    My 2 favorite deer/rabbit repellents are ” Liquid Fence” and ” I Must Garden”. I alternate them and it really works. I just bought 3 containerized Carlesii ” compactum”, but will wait to plant them in early spring. Can’t wait to smell that sweet fragrance!

  6. Margaret Arellano says:

    Hi Margaret, I am interested in the answer to the question Laurie Collins posed on May 20, 2014. I also have a Koreanspice Viburnum carlesii. So would I need to plant another carlesii nearby to get the flowers and berries? I also have a Viburnum cmpct Euro Cranberry and will that work as a second bush if needed? I’m looking for fragrance.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Margaret. A lot of them are not self-fertile (can’t pollinate themselves) so they like another variety (cultivar) of the same species, whose bloom time coincides, to be nearby — explained here in detail. The hardest part is figuring precisely which! (Sometimes even another species that is closely related apparently works, too.) Classic Viburnums has a “library” of loads of cultivar names and descriptions, but not literally a list of which crosses with which. I wish I could find a chart somewhere for you (and me!).

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