Vibrant viburnums

Article originally published by: Kiwi Gardener

At one time or another we all get bitten by the collecting bug. I know I have – and several times at that. As a very young lad, it was stamps but soon after I found plants and there was no holding me.

Every new discovery set me on a path to learn more and collect lots. I started, if I remember rightly, with dahlias, which for some reason seem to be almost exclusively a man’s domain. I saw them at a major country flower show and the amazing diversity and strong colours had me reeling. Before I knew what I was doing, I had ordered a hundred. Rhododendrons soon followed and were more practical. As my dad owned a nursery specialising in them, it wasn’t too long before I had more than 300 different species and cultivars.

Believe it or not, the following list are all plants that at one time or another I got hooked on and couldn’t let another form escape my grasp: fritillarias, narcissi, cyclamens, magnolias, Mahonia, Buddleja (buddleia), scillas and acers, as well as more general collections of conifers, bamboos and ornamental grasses.

I’m not sure to this day why other groups that some of you possibly collect, such as roses or hostas, didn’t grab me as well. I guess it would be a boring world if we all loved and collected the same things.

I have at last come to the conclusion that I am far too much of a horticultural tart to give my heart to one genus and so tend to be a “Jack of all trades and a master of none”, which from the point of view of creating a garden is a probably a good thing.

Don’t get me wrong. I have great respect for those with droves of dahlias, ranks of roses and countless camellias but their gardens do tend to be collections and not gardens. They are, however, fonts of knowledge about their selected plant group – making them ideal speakers for the garden club – and they also keep the genetic material that at some time will undoubtedly be really important, for they hold on to older varieties when it is no longer viable for nurseries to do so, given that most clients want the novelty of the new.

We have all probably seen these types of gardens in our travels. The dahlia collector with his rectangular beds full of tomato stakes with labels nailed to the top when the plants are dormant and umbrellas protecting the disbudded plants so that the show blooms won’t be spoilt by the weather.

I once met an American whose camellia collection encompassed several hundred varieties, all in tubs. You would need a miner’s lamp to find your way around. Only another camellia collector could have loved it.

Having said all that, one group of plants that can’t be overdone, even in a small garden, are the viburnums and this is due, I believe, to their amazing diversity, which stops them visually dominating.

Viburnum sargentii ‘Onondaga’ seems to be doing something from spring until autumn.
Viburnum japonicum has glossy foliage, white flowers and glossy red berries. I even have this form with variegated leaves – which may be overdoing things.

There are tall ones like Viburnum rhytidophyllum and V. awabuki (often sold incorrectly as V. odoratissima), which can grow into small (3m) trees, right down to small shrubs of little more that 1m, like V. davidii and V. plicatum ‘Summer Snowflake’.

Some are evergreen, like the first three mentioned, and many are deciduous. Some are loved for their stunning perfumes, such as V. carlesii, V. juddii and V. farreri. On the other hand, some are loved for their huge pompoms of flowers such as V. macrocephalum (which translates as “big head”) or V. opulus ‘Roseum’, the well-known snowball tree or guelder rose. This last was for years incorrectly yet appropriately called V. opulus ‘Sterile’. Why it is now called ‘Roseum’, which means pink, when its flowers are white, is a mystery to me.

Yet others are renown for their amazing crops of berries that will brighten up the garden in summer and autumn, and just a few of the best include my all-time favourite with berries which last on the plant for months, V. opulus ‘Notcutt’s Variety’. Others that can’t be ignored are the yellow-fruited V. opulus ‘Xanthocarpum’ and the already mentioned V. davidii which, if both sexes are planted, will produce lovely grey-blue berries.

There are species that are renowned for their foliage form or colour. For glossy evergreen leaves, you can’t go past the aforementioned V. davidii, as well as V. japonicum, which also gets lovely berries and doesn’t need a partner to do it. When it comes to leaves for autumn colour, there is a plethora of viburnums to select from so I will only mention a few. The already mentioned V. opulus forms also come into their own here, as does another favourite of mine (it’s getting to be obvious that all of them seem to be my favourites in one way or another), V. sargentii ‘Onondago’. This one not only colours well in autumn but its spring foliage is a lovely chocolate colour, setting off its pink and white lace cap flowers to perfection.

Even the shape of the plants can be a feature as is more than illustrated by the many different forms of V. plicatum. These plants produce their flowers on the top of almost horizontal branches, which gives a most dramatic effect, only slightly less so when they are bare in winter or covered in summer foliage.

Look out for V. plicatum tomentosum ‘Mariesii’ and V. plicatum ‘Pink Beauty’. The small growing V. plicatum tomentosum ‘Summer Snowflake’ is also one of these and it tends to keep flowering well into summer, as the name would suggest.

Finally, all can be pruned as needs be and varieties can be selected that will grow in sun or shade, tolerate dry conditions, make a good hedge or screen, and are fantastic for cutting to take indoors whether for scent, foliage, flowers or fruit. Some even have edible berries, like the guelder rose, so what more could you possibly want.

I’m sure that, like me, you will find them all delightful and even in a small garden they won’t tend to visually take over.

Viburnum opulus ‘Notcutt’s Variety’ is certainly opulent when covered with fruit. It was selected by Notcutt’s Nursery in England and is loved the world over.
Viburnum plicatum var. tomentosum ‘Summer Snowflake’ is a dainty small shrub with a mass of spring flowers and then a smattering throughout the summer. Ideal in even the smallest garden.