NIce and Easy

May 16, 2020

 Looking for a low-maintenance, problem-free, long-lived shrub? Look no farther than the viburnum. Know as “cranberry bush” in Europe, this family of over 150 species has plenty of members that are native to the woodlands of eastern North America. They are all quite cold tolerant but vary in their adaptation to hot weather.


Arrow-wood, V. dentatum, is quite heat tolerant. It is found from Maine to Texas and Florida. It thrives in shade as well as full sun. Witherod, V. nudum, was used for basket work by native Americans. Its range stretches from Newfoundland west to Manitoba and south to Texas and Florida.


(Photo: Blue Muffin viburnum)


There are two branches to this group. Swamp haw, as the name implies, is found in wet woodlands and swamps. Possum haw is more drought tolerant. Black haw, V. prunifolium, and Southern black haw, V. rufidulum, are very heat and drought tolerant.


These deciduous shrubs bear white or pale pink flowers in spring. The flowers may be snowballs or flat clusters. The foliage is brilliantly colored in autumn. Leaves may be yellow, red or burgundy. For winter interest, many bear colorful shiny round berries which are attractive to birds. For fruit production, one must plant two or three of the same cultivar to ensure cross-pollination.


Growth habit varies quite a bit from dwarf to garden giant. There is such a range of variation that the Chicago Botanical Garden has a “viburnum walk” composed of many cultivars.


One only needs to prune viburnum shrubs to remove dead or damaged branches. If you want to shape the bush, this is best done immediately after the flowers fade. Many selections have a spreading growth habit  and become as wide as they are tall. Others are more upright. They grow one to two feet a year until reaching their mature size.


Most will grow in full sun or partial shade. Those grown in shade will not become as large as one in a sunny site. They want good drainage and are not picky about soil. Dig the planting hole to the same depth as the root ball and two or three times as wide. Place the root ball in the hole and backfill halfway. Water and then finish filling the hole. Water again. While the shrub is becoming established, irrigate weekly in the absence of rain. Young plants need an inch of water weekly.


At present, we have a hedge of Blue Muffin viburnum at my house. This upright growing cultivar has deep blue berries in autumn. I bought the shrubs from a mail order source. They were shipped in four-inch pots and grew about two feet the first year. By the third season, they had filled in to look like a hedge (above).  Now, five years after planting, they are about seven feet tall, forming a lush screen.


Best planted in spring, deer-resistant viburnum adds a lot of visual interest to the landscape with a minimum of effort on the part of the gardener.


Master gardener Ann Bartlett, The Planet's favorite garden columnist, is also gaining some cred as a mystery writer. Note how she does not reveal until the penultimate paragraph why a plant known for white flowers should be called a blue muffin. Email Ann at   

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