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Damn Good plants, Berrying Viburnums - Part 1

Part One - Going Native

The fall's crowning event is undoubtedly the turning of foliage. Rich golds, warming oranges and brilliant reds light up our landscape like a roaring fire. However, once the foliage is gone berries take center stage and shine on, at least until the birds strip them off. The king of all berrying plants has to be the Hollies but, Viburnums have some of the greatest range of berry colors to choose from.

Popular for their adaptability, Viburnums can be planted in a range of different conditions, from full sun to shade, dry to periodically waterlogged. Within the 150 plus species and countless cultivars, some are evergreen, some carry a divine fragrance but for this post I wanted to highlight a few of those that stand out with an exceptional show of berries. Though many produce berries to varying degrees, the ones I've selected below have out-shined others to become my top picks. Due to the large number available to us in the trade, I've broken this list down into a two part series, this first post looking solely at North American natives. The next post will delve into non-native exotic's that are just as garden worthy!

Viburnum nudum - The Smooth Witherod or Possumhaw

Viburnum nudum 'Brandywine'
Maybe it's just the time of year, with business being slower, but the common name left me puzzling over the origin. The best I could find was that a 'Withe' (from old English) is a flexible twig, used in weaving, fence building etc. Possumhaw was more a puzzle, but 'haw' is an old English term for berries though I did find references to enclosures. Possibly, a possum was once seen eating the berries around the same time it was being named. Could it be that easy? This handsome shrub can be found growing in moist areas from Maine down to Florida and as far west as Texas. Though found in wet locations, it can tolerate droughts rather successfully. The foliage is exceptionally shiny, leading you to think it was sprayed with leaf shine to get that glossy.  The two cultivars I see most on the market are 'Winterthur' and 'Brandywine'. 

'Winterthur' was introduced from the Winterthur Gardens in Delaware, as an improved compact selection over the species, growing to 6 ft. The glossy green foliage is bright and fresh through the year but comes alive in the fall with reddish purple hues before dropping. The flattened umbrella of creamy white flowers are followed with white berries that turn hot pink, to red, then maturing to dark blue. 

'Brandywine' is very similar, though I have observed a much heavier berry set. Its desirable feature is that 'Brandywine' will set fruit without the need for another cultivar nearby to cross pollinate, a valuable trait when assessing its worthiness for small gardens.

Viburnum dentatum - Arrowwood

Arrowwoods are another workhorse of the garden, tough as nails while requiring little attention, if any. It's easy to fall in love with this shrub for its glossy, lustrous foliage regardless of how scorching hot and drought stricken the summers get. The margin of the leaf have a coarsely serrated edge like the teeth of a carpenters saw, an important textural quality when designing combinations. It makes an upright, multi-stemmed shrub, maturing to 6 to 10 ft. in height.  Under optimum conditions it could get larger, but controllable with pruning. Though the flowering is not overly exciting, a word of caution would be not to plant it to close to your home. I've found the fragrance, if one can use that term, is reminiscent to an old pair of gym shoes! Thankfully, flowering isn't long lived and when the berries begin to show, you can forgive it of its sins. Native Americans reportedly used its long and straight stems as arrow shafts, hence the common name. A number of cultivars exist, but again the two most popular ones are 'Blue Muffin' and 'Chicago Luster'.

Viburnum dentatum 'Chicago Luster'
'Blue Muffin' is a shorter, compact cultivar that produces clusters of metallic blue berries. From personal observations, the berries aren't as copiously produced as in the picture cards attached to the plants would imply.  I have still yet to see one in the landscape that proves me wrong. However, with the size being more than the average shrub, I suspect most home owners whack it back, favoring size over berries. 

'Chicago Luster' was originally found growing within the grounds of the Morton Arboretum and brought into cultivation by Synnestvedt Nursery, Illinois, in 1967. It has stood the test of time as a worthy garden shrub and will produce an abundance of fruits. Both types are needed to successfully cross pollinate and set fruit, but will not do so if planted singularly. This leads to problems when dealing with small gardens unless two neighbors cooperate and include one of each into their gardens. 

Viburnum trilobum - American Cranberrybush Viburnum

I once read an article that claimed this type to be a 'horticultural sleeper', a very true description for an underused shrub. It's not one that gets a lot of attention in the gardening press and doesn't have any spectacular marketing campaigns to promote it for use in the garden. Still its a dependable shrub, relatively pest and disease free, with maple like foliage during the growing season. Though it carries the cranberry name, it is not actually a true cranberry. The fruits can be eaten, though sour, or cooked into a sauce and served with meat or game. They come in a range of sizes, depending on the varieties, but one can be found to suit any garden.  It's main use though is as a backdrop shrub, rather than a center stage jewel. However, with the on set of fall, they become a focal point and break out in a firecracker's worth of color while the clusters of pearl like fruit can remain well into winter. Care should be taken when selecting a spot to grow this type as it requires moisture to do well. In drought conditions you can expect to see the foliage scorch. Cross pollination is required for it to set fruit, so two different varieties will need to be grown.  Again, two main cultivars dominate the market, 'Alfredo' and 'Redwing', but others exist for those looking for a greater range.

Viburnum trilobum from beautifulcataya @
'Alfredo' is the new variation of 'Compactum', which is said to grow denser and slightly broader than its old counterpart, to 5-6ft high and wide. Selected by Bailey's Nurseries of Minnesota, it has an upright habit in youth but like most of us, rounds out with age! Most accounts list this cultivar to be sparely fruiting, favoring instead 'Compactum', but neither have stayed at the garden center long enough to tell. 

'Redwing' was new for me this year, and no doubt will be on my orders for the following years to come. Selected for its showy red new growth that unfurls against the back drop of darker green foliage until the spring flush finishes before summer. Fall coloration is a bright red to wine red and of coarse has a heavy set of berries. This cultivar is more like the straight species, though denser, growing 8-10 ft high and wide.

With so many native Viburnums to choose, it's a hard task to narrow such a large group down to just a short list. However, many other kinds exist but with the lack of name recognition, so many never make into mainstream production. Keep a open mind when considering some of the lesser known types.  In many cases they haven't been hyped up as much in the market, but often make excellent additions in the garden.  In Part 2, we'll take a look at some of the non-native berrying Viburnums that have found a home in our gardens.

Don't forget to read more @ Damn good plants - Berrying viburnums Part 2

For more information click on this - Classic Viburnums