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. balsamfir says:

    A few years ago, I went to a nursery and this unbelievable(good) smell grabbed me the minute I got out of my car. It turned out to be a V. Carlessii blooming over a hundred feet away. I’ve been trying to make a place for one, but am concerned about the Viburnum beetles, which are terrible here. Do they attack yours and how badly if so?

  2. Deborah says:

    Check out the Cornell site http://www.hort.cornell.edu/vlb/suscept.html for a list of which viburnums are highly suspectible to the viburnum leaf beetle, which are suspectible, which are moderately suspectible, and those viburnums most resistant to the beetle. You will be happy to see that V. carlesii is on the Most Resistant list, along with V x juddii, V. plicatum and a few other great viburnums. My experience has jived with the list. I lost two arrowwood viburnums (on the highly suspectible list), have babied my V. lantana to keep it clean, and have had no trouble at all with V. carlesii.

  3. bavaria says:

    This is the first year my daphne bloomed…..heavenly!
    And to hear viburnum is scented like a daphne plus spice……I’ll be tracking that one down!

  4. Marilyn Wilkie says:

    This year I bought a Judd Viburnum. I could smell it from a long ways off. I compared it to the carlesii and it actually seems more fragrant. I will be planting it today.

  5. leslie land says:

    Thanks so much for giving this great shrub a spotlight, and even more for suggesting the cultivars. The species version that came with this house has been wowing us for 20 springs, but it fails to wow for the rest of the year. No amount of pruning seems adequate to keep it shapely (although admittedly “no amount” is often what it gets).
    We think about replacing it, but hesitate to remove such a sturdy performer. It ‘s been intoxicating the whole front yard for 2 weeks, in spite of being near-smothered by a suddenly rampant creeping euonymus. Definitely time to remove that; and if we keep on going we’ll have you to thank for the encouragement!

  6. Lisa says:

    I had 3 Koreanspice Viburnum at my old house. They were spectacular, you could smell them coming down the street. When I moved across town, they were one of the first things the new owners ripped out. Before even going through a season with them and seeing what they do! I can’t even go by my old home now, I just get sick thinking of all the treasures that they threw out. They didn’t even offer them to gardeners, just got a big hopper and started throwing stuff in apparently. If I ever move again, I’m hiring someone to dig everything up for me to take to the next house.

  7. Kathy M says:

    Any tips on pruning this shrub. Mine took forever to start growing but once it did it has gotten rather large for its alloted garden space. It is now about 6ft tall by 4 ft wide. I got it from Bluestone perennials about 6 yrs ago. Wonderful sweet smelling blooms and nice to bring inside when nothing else is blooming.

  8. Linda Pastorino says:

    Have had two Diane’s on two end beds in the rose and shrub gardens ( they have mixed borders) and the one had peeked last week and the other this week. The scent is heavenly and one can smell it from about twenty or more feet away. They stay compact at around 7-8 feet and it’s taken all of 7 years to get that big. I love Viburnam and am very envious of your collection. I only have four varieties and would love to add many more. It is also hard to some times get the male to the females and I have had fruting problems. I think the suppliers should always offer more males to females as it seems so many of us are looking for him! Some types are hard to find and have lists circulating with several suppliers.
    My daphnes are now leaving it’s scent around and it is very similar to that viburnam in it’s odor.

  9. Nancy Stroh says:

    Living in Coconut Grove, FL it is hard for me to relate to all of your beautiful plants. However, I must share with you that I have two Jamaican Caper trees on either side of my front door and their scent is so seductive. They show off best at this time of year when they blossom. The bees love them too! Nancy

  10. Joan Defenbaugh says:

    I love this flowering shrub. I’ve owned three homes in Ohio since 1985 and I have to have this plant wherever I live. We have three different types of viburnum in our back yard, but this specific scent is the best! Allergies and all, it’s wonderful.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Joan. Agreed on all fronts. It wouldn’t be spring without that scent reaching out and grabbing me across the yard. See you soon!

  11. Edie says:

    I’m so glad you posted this. I’ve been seeing and sniffing these shrubs in my neighborhood but none of the neighbors I’ve asked could put a name to these lovelies. Now I know, so when I actually get a yard I can track down a viburnum to plant in it. I’m tempted to experiment with a compacta in a container despite living in zone 5. (The guideline I learned to pick container plants that will survive winter is to subtract two zones from my own.) I do have a small “Silver and Gold” dogwood that wintered on the porch in its plastic nursery pot and is leafing out beautifully, but they are much hardier. Time to plant the dogwood into something classier.

  12. linda says:

    They’re hands-down my favorite fragrant shrub. I don’t have one (yet,) but one of my favorite clients does and it’s blooming right now . . . heavenly!

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Lee. Here, too (Zone 5B), a real winner, and a real signal that spring has finally arrived in full force. See you soon again, I hope.

  13. Nancy says:

    Margaret, I’m dismayed–ok, heartbroken– that my viburnum carlesii, after a sort of peaky year last year, looks even worse this year. I think it’s a canker type disease; no sign of the dreaded beetle. but the big cankers on the trunk are pretty close to the ground, and big chunks of branches failed to leaf out although the buds are on the branches. There were a few sad little blossoms and about 1/3 leaves and 2/3 bare branches. Can this shrub be saved? And if I accept the inevitable, am I foolish to plant a new carlesii in the same spot?

  14. Shay says:

    Hello Margaret, I have a wonderfully fragrant viburnum along my driveway and I’d like to move it to a more prominent spot in our garden, so we can actually enjoy the scent. Have I missed the boat for transplanting in 2011? And what about all this rain? Is it a compaction nightmare to dig in this much rain? I’m not far from you, in upper Dutchess County. Thank you!

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Shay. I think you can still love it, but I would not dig if the soil is sodden — even a couple of days without rain should help drain it off a bit. I say go for it.

  15. Renee says:

    I am heartbroken over my korean spice. I had two and last year the rabbits got them. I got a new one and in December I noticed rabbit damage. We wrapped it in chicken wire and it survived and is putting on a lot of growth, but I have been waiting five long years for blooms. My mom bought one two years ago and hers is HUGE. I’m afraid my rabbit problem may be too bad to keep it. They ate EVERYTHING last winter – my wine and rose weigela, my golden privet, my lilacs barely bloomed because they ate off all the branches. They chewed my japanese beautyberry almost to bits. They even decided to chew on my chicago lustre viburnums this year. NOTHING was safe.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Renee. Sounds like you are very much in need of a licensed wildlife-control expert. Seriously; if you cannot legally trap and relocate animals in your state, then what about getting help? There is simply no way to garden (except with a couple of feet underground of hardware cloth, PLUS above-ground fences everywhere) otherwise. Time to take action!

  16. cynthia says:

    I had a beautiful Viburnum carleseii that was about 7 ft tall. I just checked my garden records and saw that I planted it in 1997! In the spring of 2009 there were a large branch or two which had been broken by the heavy snow. I pruned those off, but the rest of it leafed out and there were blossoms, not a lot, but it did bloom.
    After that it seemed fine. It leafed out and bloomed well in 2010. However, this spring (2011) there were lots of leaf and flower buds formed, but it never leafed out…not one leaf. I waited until May and when there were still no signs of leaves, I finally took it out. So sad.
    I’ve contemplated planting another, but have been reluctant to do so thinking maybe there’s something in the soil? I didn’t notice anything that looked like a disease on it. It was in a spot that got lots of sun and there are no drainage problems.
    Do you think I should try another carlesii? If I do, I should probably look for one that stays smaller if there is such a thing. I miss the fragrance.

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Cynthia. Somewhere in this comment thread I know I mentioned that I have been losing other Viburnum to a disease — to what I think was Botryosphaeria canker and dieback. (Read the fact sheet at that link for details.) When a plant has an injury/damage it’s an opportunity for such diseases to get in and have their way. Does it look/sound familiar to hat you experienced?

  17. Jean says:

    I have a viburnum carlesii that i purchased and planted in late june. It had no flowers at the time, because it was past it’s bloom time. It has leafed out and seems very healthy, but i have no berries. Have i done something wrong? I saw some talk of male/female on this forum. Do i have a male plant and need a female? can anyone help?

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Jean. With Viburnum, what you want is to include more than one variety within the same species (so, for instance, two different cultivars of V. dentatum or V. trilobum or whatever you have one of), If you plant identical cultivars — e.g., a whole row of one named variety — you don’t good cross-pollination in most cases, meaning not as good fruit set.

      In some cases, a closely related species will do — for instance, I only have one plant of V. sargentii here, and it fruits heavily…I suspect because it is a close cousin of V. trilobum, which I have a couple of, too. But the basic idea: they aren’t self-pollinators, and in fact many are what’s called self-sterile. So add more kinds!

      Basically here I don’t think much about who pollinates who because I have a lot of Viburnum, so I’ve probably got pollen for just about anybody somewhere, but in the beginning I was more deliberate to mix it up.

  18. Cynthia says:

    Margaret….for some reason I missed seeing your response earlier. Thank you for the link to Botryosphaeria disease. I did notice some dark spots on the trunk when I took it out, so it could have been that. But the whole, very large, plant went at the same time, not just one branch. I thought that was odd. The branches were still flexible, but there was no sign of any leafing out. If it hadn’t been in such a prominent place in the landscape (next to the front gate) I might have left it longer.

    I did not see anything in that article indicating the disease stays in the soil. I know some others do and it’s not a good idea to replace the dead plant with the same species. So far, I have’t replaced the carleseii. But I may put in another Viburnum nudum winterthur. I have several of those nearby and they seem to be doing fine. I have lots of other viburnums in other spots so pollination does not seem to be a problem.

    I’ll miss the delicious fragrance of the carlesii though.

  19. Jean says:

    Hello Margaret, Thanks so much for your prompt response re: pollination/berries.
    I have a very small space, and not sure i have room for another. Is there a small one you could recommend? Also, since i only have one right now, does that mean that it won’t flower either?
    thanks so much for your experience.

  20. cia says:

    Rabbits can be controlled by pepper,soap and grated onion. Boil large amount of onions, garlic and pepper or Tabasco. Cool and strain . Put it in a spray bottle with a few drops of dish soap and spray your plants. The smell and the taste will deter deer,rabbits, coons .. It really works!

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