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).

  1. margaret says:

    Welcome, Liz, and ain’t that the truth? Glad you share my love of these great shrubs. Fruit starting to form now as flowers fade. The cycle continues.

  2. liz obear says:

    i love your intro, “the early bloomers will seduce you, and your garden will tell the tale of your foolish seduction forever more.”
    i had to read it out loud- it’s so funny, and so true. i am into viburnums too- my doublefiles (3) are just blooming for the first time and they are beautiful. now i have to find a place for a carlesii since you made it sound so appealing!

  3. margaret says:

    Welcome, Phil, to A Way to Garden. Funny (or not so funny, actually, but sad): I was just needing to tackle this myself, as I have several shrubs under attack. The best information I have found is (no surprise) at Cornell, where they claim that if we’d sprayed in April, we could have smothered a lot of the emerging new generation of beetles with horticultural oil and insecticidal soap (two non-toxic materials).
    There are several other management techniques outlined, including removal of damaged twigs, so I am out later today to get started (wish I had gotten started in April). I thank you for reminding me that this war needs to be waged with a vengeance in my yard, too, where viburnums are a mainstay.

  4. phil says:

    i was wondering if you had any thoughts about the dreaded viburnum leaf beetle – that is, to be more specific, ways to eradicate it. i live down in westchester and unfortunately it has made its way down here.

  5. eva says:

    I have a few transplanting questions for you. In 2005 we had some major landscaping done, and needless to say we were so taken advantage of. Shame on me! I know enough about plants and flowers to know that they were over planting just to get the “WOW” factor. Now I have an overgrown mess. I have 33 viburnum shrubs that need to be transplanted,10 Cranberrybush, 18 Mariesi Doublefile, and 5 Blackhaw. Along with all of these shrubs I have 160 Karl Foster Feather ornamental grasses to move. My list could go on and on. My questions are, can I cut my grasses back now instead of in the spring like I usually do and transplant them this fall when it gets a little bit cooler? Second what should I do the all of the viburnum shrubs? Can I prune and transplant them in the fall,or should I prune them and transplant them in the spring? I really could use some expert advise.

    Sincerely Yours,
    Had It With Landscaping Companies


    I would send you pictures if you like so you can see what I am dealing with.

  6. margaret says:

    Welcome, Eva. Sounds like quite the collection of great plants, at least. You do not say where you garden (what zone), and the reason I wonder is that ornamental grasses are generally better moved in early spring if they will experience a cold winter, like we have here. Since they “do their thing” in the later season, and use a lot of energy in the process, it’s best not to move them in fall.
    The shrubs will be fine, so you can get started now. If you need to cut some back severely before moving, I’d do it in earliest spring, however. So the ones to move now are those that will be having just a little pruning here or there…not those in need of a total cutback to near the ground to get them to where they are going. Hopefully, most don’t need that kind of severe treatment, but sometimes I’ve had to do that because something was just too ungainly to move.
    Again, if you are in a frost-free location tell me…
    Maybe you should call the offending landscape service and tell them to come do it for free, or you’ll send photos to the Better Business Bureau. :)

  7. Amy says:

    Ok, here’s a wild one:

    Any idea why my viburnum carlcephalum is blooming now? I placed it on the northeast corner of our house, planting the new shrub on July 4. I purchased it from a local nursery on sale. Our soil is clay and it’s a fairly shady spot this time of year (with more sun in the peak of summer). I saw the pink buds this morning and nearly flipped.

  8. margaret says:

    Welcome, Amy. I have had many things rebloom this year (where I am, we have had LOTS of rain, don’t know if that influenced this weirdness). A Daphne ‘Carol Mackie,’ some viburnum, etc. Odd indeed. I swear that one of my magnolias is showing color (a yellow one). So strange…don’t know what to say.

  9. L. T. TRAN says:


    Here is another chore to add to your to do list in the fall: Visit Winterthur Garden. They are holding their annual Garden Fair next weekend and I believe that the gardening editor of Martha Stewart Magazine is one of the featured speakers.


    L.T. TRAN

  10. Amy says:

    Hi Margaret – Glad to hear I’m not the only one experiencing some odd plant behavior. The poor dear is confused about which side of winter she’s on. And it is official – Those buds I noticed on September 13 are now in full, fragrant bloom on her top branches, and there are more buds ready to burst forth on the lower branches. I wonder what she will do in Spring? Bear fruit?

  11. Jonith says:

    Hi Margaret — I continue to find little gems, like this post, on your site which I missed the first time around. Finding this entry is particularly timely because I just bought two relatively young viburnums from a nursery in Venlo, NL on the German-Dutch border that don’t seem to have any berries. The Dutch always seem to have a much wider selection of plants than their German counterparts, which is why I frequent this particular nursery, but is it possible that I’ve also managed to get a rare non-fruit strain that they didn’t label? Or do most virburnums need to be a certain age before they flower/fruit? From the looks of it, these are at least a couple of years old — they’re both about three feet high. A nutritional deficiency perhaps?

    As always, love the site — and Happy Equinox!

  12. margaret says:

    Most viburnums do produce attractive fruit. However, most are also not able to pollinate themselves (and in some cases even incompatible with themselves…meaning even a large group of a single species won’t guarantee fruit). Yikes.
    Knowing which close cousins will pollinate which is the trick…or growing a menagerie (my solution). I have never had a viburnum fail to fruit, but then I am growing probably 8 to 10 species and several varieties within many of those species and multiple individuals, basically covering all the bases. (So far.)
    I need to see whether I have a good chart of this in my library…and also we’d need to know the species/cultivar you’ve got to venture a guess on what’s required. But I suspect that’s what’s up.

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Pamela. I have never found a really comprehensive/detailed chart of who pollinates who, but I have so many viburnums (nearly 30) that it is moot here. I think your best bet is to choose another variety of the same species (so if you have a ‘Shasta’ add a ‘Mariesii’ or a ‘Watanabe.’ Another Viburnum plicatum cultivar. That’s what I would do first. That said, I got fruit on both my doublefile and my V. sieboldii (another species entirely) when they were the only two I had years ago, right next to each other. See you soon again.

  13. Diane says:

    Pragense Viburnum

    I’m in Zone 5 and when I originally planted my P. Viburnum in 2006 I loved the location that I planted it. Now, three years later I realize I should have planted him further back in the bed due to overcrowding. I’m wondering if I can prune him now or should I wait until fall and second when is the best time to move him? Can I do it in the summer, or should I wait until fall or spring?


    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Diane. I don’t prune after late spring unless it’s a total crisis, preferring to do rejuvenation and major alterations in early spring as often as possible, to allow the plant to have all season to recover (and not have pushed any fresh growth that might get zapped by frost too soon). You can see my pruning ideas here. Moving can happen early spring or in fall, yes. Make sure it is well-watered for weeks leading up to the move and also afterward. And by the way, viburnums are a little funny about pruning…I hate when they are slightly pruned, and instead prefer taking out whole stems to the ground, which you will also see on that pruning link.

  14. Jenn D'Arcy says:

    I am getting ready to transplant a viburnum. We are moving and it was originally planted for my son’s birth so we want to bring it with us. Should we wait until fall to re-plant it? Will a 4 yr old viburnum transplant without any trouble? Thanks for your help/advice.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Jenn. Best not to uproot things in the heat of summer, so wait until the last possible moment (or a rainy day) and get it out and back into a new hole ASAP. Keep well watered (and make sure for week or two or three before digging it up it’s well watered). Never leave things out of the ground one more minute than needed…lift and replant right in order if you can.

  15. gary olson says:

    I have a Winterberry bush I would like to move. It is about 6 years old. Is there a better time to move it and is it a difficult task? I don’t want to risk damaging it.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Gary. I have moved them in spring and fall, but I’d wait until the leaves drop so the plant is more dormant and won’t go through any extra stress. If it were spring, I’d try to do it as early as possible. Whether it will be difficult depends how big the rootball is, meaning how heavy it will be to move. Plan to dig well out from the trunk to locate where the rootball extends to, to make the move as painless for the plant as possible. See you soon again.

  16. Dee says:

    Hi Margaret,

    I live in zone 9 and just bought a vi this weekend that was in a 5 gallon pot. It has tiny little pink blossoms all over the plant and looks quite healthy (and large). Since this is my first vi do you have any special tips for my zone? It is healthy enough that it could stay in the pot a little longer. I bought it in the plant sale area and we weren’t supposed to ask any questions.

    I’m thinking of putting it on the southwest side of my yard to replace a freestanding privacy fence.


  17. Jennifer says:

    I have recently moved into a house, and have been trying to identify what is in my garden. The person who lived here before threw a few plants in mindlessly, and while some of them are beautiful, and seem to work, I have NO idea what is really there. I think that I have 4 of these, but am not sure. If I were to provide some photos, would you by chance be able to help me determine the possibility of whether they might be a Viburnum? I am hopeful, after reading this blog. I am very new to gardening, and I want to do right by the bushes, but have no idea if they are too close, in need of pruning, etc.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Jennifer; send them along to email and I will see if I can manage a quick ID. awaytogarden [at] gmail [dot] com is the address. Good that you are not making any hasty decisions before you do some sleuthing. It takes a hole year and lots of note-taking and research to really get acquainted with a new garden, I think. Very exciting, though. See you soon.

  18. Linda Pastorino says:

    I was to ask the same question of berries ie viburnam as above but still confused as to what to do. I have not had berries on any of my viburnam yet. The first Carlessii I put in 7 years ago and two near one another, nothing. Very healthy but nothing so far.The original two are in the rose garden about 200 feet from the other five. I have some others in another area as well, so they are within a few hundred feet each three groups of various types.
    I added five different species two years ago and two of some of them each besides, all doing quite well including nudum Winterthur , flowering fine near one another but no berries. I saw the beautiful color of the red leaves and blue berries on Winterthur on your sight and mine is still green with no berries. I’m in zone 5B Are the photos on the sight now what your’s look like now this week? I would add more all over the property I love them, but want the berries( I love the yellow berries in the photo of your sight ) as I think I like this stage best. Let me know what you think or if you have that polination chart you spoke of, maybe you can post it for us. The Nudum I have is about five feet tall when I planted it so it’s a quite mature but only two years in the garden, this will be the second winter. Last year the leaves were red eventually but no berries.

  19. Kevin says:

    Hi Linda Not all Viburnum spiecies produce colorful fruit; most of the double flowering varieties are sterile.V. carlesii is grown for it’s fragrance not fruit. The smooth rod Viburnum needs more than one shrub planted near by to produce its great fruit display

  20. carol13 says:

    I have a Cardinal Candy viburnum.This will be the 3rd Spring for it. It had an aphid infestation last year that got a bit ahead of me before I realized what was going on. It then only had a couple blooms & no fruit. Have you had any experience with this variety? How can I give it a boost?

    1. margaret says:

      Sounds like the aphids may have tested the young-ish plant. Cardinal Candy is meant to fruit even with no cross-pollination, so I’d day make sure to water deeply and regularly, and help it rebound from last year’s challenges and maybe it will settle in. Don’t feed.

  21. vw garden says:

    I’ve been researching viburnums for my yard and really appreciated this post and another one you wrote on Korean spice bush. I’ve got room for one ‘Shasta’ doublefile and a few Korean spice – I’m thinking ‘Diana’ sounds good. Opinions from real life gardeners are so valuable – thanks for sharing yours!

  22. Elizabeth says:

    I have viburnum near my front door. It is approx. 25 inches in length. In August/September it smells very very bad (like doggie do). Any suggestions about how to go about stopping/eliminating /deflecting the smell. I cannot remove them at this time. Thank you!!

    1. margaret says:

      I’d suspect that’s not possible, Elizabeth. Can’t imagine what would help. What aspect of the plant is causing the smell? Fruit?

      1. Elizabeth says:

        I have viburnum near my front door. It is approx. 25 inches in length. In August/September it smells very very bad (like doggie do). Any suggestions about how to go about stopping/eliminating /deflecting the smell. I cannot remove them at this time. Thank you!!

  23. Nisie says:

    What is the variety shown in your third picture. I am looking for one that would look exactly like it, with the long spread out branches and neat, flat rows of flowers.

    I would like to grow it in a corner that slopes upward. We are in USDA zone 5, with a narrow greenbelt & creek running behind us.

    I would love berries to entice more birds.

    1. margaret says:

      That’s a doublefile viburnum (Viburnum plicatum var. tomentosum, and I believe the cultivar was ‘Shasta,’ a large one). There are many cultivars (see list at bottom of page at this link). Note that in recent years more people are going with native Viburnums instead of Asian ones (this is an Asian species) for additional beneficial wildlife value.

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