COARSE AND SLIGHTLY UNKEMPT AS IT MAY BE, Viburnum sieboldii was one of my first viburnums and is still beloved here. And as if it knows it has some rough edges to make up for, it gives me little extras, in addition to being easy to grow. There is fruit the birds enjoy that evolves through several colors as it ripens over a long period, and foliage that smells like a somewhat funky pineapple to me when rubbed or crushed (one not-quite-aroma-therapeutic way to tell if V. sieboldii is the plant you’re looking at).
My old 20-by-12-foot plant—really more of a multi-trunked small tree than a shrub at this age—is starting to decline after more than 20 years. It still wants to put on a good show despite its advancing age, though, with creamy flowers in late spring (above), lustrous foliage, and fruit in late summer into fall that matures from orangey-gold to red to blue-black (below and top). Even after the birds have taken the fruit, the picked-over stems that held it remain red and flashy.
The most popular variety, ‘Seneca,’ has the showiest, longest-lasting fruit, but there’s a downside: It is said in various references to stay firm enough to resist the birds’ advances. Where’s the fun in that? (Answer: for the gardener–and to be fair, other sources rate it as a bird plant, so who knows?) Like the species (such as my plant is), ‘Seneca’ is hardy to Zones 4-7, and is adaptable to part shade.
Full disclosure: I see the siebold viburnum is on some mid-Atlantic invasive-species lists including one in central New Jersey, or on “watchlists,” including Pennsylvania’s, but in my zone I’ve not had offspring appear. I cannot say the same for the doublefile viburnum, Viburnum plicatum var. tomentosum, a prodigious producer of seedlings even here in Zone 5B year after year. It also makes such lists with regularity, as does the European cranberrybush (Viburnum opulus) and the linden viburnum (Viburnum dilatatum)—Asian species, or Asian and European in the case of the opulus, that are widely sold and grown as ornamentals.
As these lists point out (read Connecticut’s explanation, for instance), this is particularly troublesome outside a cultivated setting—meaning when used not in a tended garden but in “open spaces,” these plants are of even greater concern.
What will I do when my plant dies? Though I may not replace it with the same species, I have to credit the siebold viburnum as one of the first plants that taught me to garden for the birds, and about multi-season plants in general. To help me in my pondering, the American Horticultural Society has an extensive article about native Viburnum species, and I’ll be pulling Michael Dirr’s viburnum book off the shelf here, too.