In the Garden:
New England
September, 2004
Regional Report

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The bright red berries of highbush cranberry are but one reason to welcome the viburnum family to your garden.

Showy Viburnums

The viburnum leaf beetles may have kept me hopping in spring while they picnicked on my newly planted arrowwood viburnums, but that hasn't dampened my enthusiasm for the members of this family, which includes the widely popular American cranberrybush. There's just so much to love about them.

The word "cranberry" in the common name suggests the berries are edible, and in fact they have a long tradition of use as both an edible fruit and a medicinal tonic. The vitamin-rich berries of many varieties are also a favorite food of ruffed grouse and cedar waxwings, as well as deer, moose, chipmunks, and other wildlife.

Versatile Viburnums
"A garden without a viburnum is akin to life without music and art." So begins author Michael Dirr's description of viburnums in his 1100-page Manual of Woody Landscape Plants. Not one to hesitate to express disappointment in a plant, Dirr raves about viburnums and promises to one day devote an entire tome to this single genus.

Viburnums have long been used as ornamentals in home gardens, and with good reason. They provide showy spring flowers, colorful summer berries, and attractive fall foliage. Plus, they are extremely adaptable and relatively pest-free (it's all relative, after all), and many types will grow in all but the coldest regions of the Northeast.

Native Species
Several viburnum species are native to New England, so you know these are well adapted to the region's climate and soil conditions. As an added bonus, the fruits provide food for native wildlife.

Highbush cranberry (V. trilobum), mentioned above and sometimes called American cranberrybush viburnum, prefers moist soil and full sun to light shade, and makes an excellent 8- to 12-foot-tall screen or informal hedge. (Smaller cultivars, such as 'Compactum', are also available.)

Mapleleaf viburnum (V. acerifolium) is one of the more shade-tolerant species. Showy flowers in spring are followed by attractive fruit clusters that start out orange, turn red then purplish black as the summer progresses. In autumn, the foliage turns reddish purple. The plant reaches a height of 3 to 6 feet and spreads by suckering; it is best used in a situation where it can spread and form a thicket.

Non-Native Types
Korean spice viburnum (V. carlesii) is native to Korea and prized for its sweetly scented flowers. This attractive, rounded shrub grows 6 to 8 feet tall and is largely pest free.

Burkwood viburnum (V. x burkwoodii), an upright, multi-stemmed shrub growing to a height of 10 to 12 feet, is the result of a cross between Korean spice and service viburnums. Glossy, deep green foliage, pink flower buds maturing to showy white, fragrant blooms, and a tough constitution make this an excellent shrub for just about any landscape. The cultivar 'Mohawk' is smaller, growing to just 6 feet, and has striking, red flower buds.

Note that the fruits of both Burkwood and Korean spice viburnums are less showy and usually more sparse than their native cousins, so if you're planting to attract wildlife, choose one of the native species.

Doublefile viburnum (V. plicatum var. tomentosum) is a large, elegant-flowering shrub that produces masses of white flowers and abundant fruit along horizontal tiers of branches. It's a little more finicky about conditions, requiring consistently moist but well-drained soils. It is rated hardy to zone 5, but it occasionally suffers from branch dieback due to winter injury.

There are dozens of other viburnums to consider, so take your time before investing in one of these long-lived shrubs. Check hardiness ratings carefully: Some, such as Burkwood, will thrive anywhere in New England, while others, such as Japanese viburnum (V. japonicum), are rated hardy only to zone 7.

In his tribute to the viburnum, Michael Dirr even gives a recipe for "a beautiful, ruby-red jam with distinctive flavor" made from highbush cranberries. It's the only recipe I've come across in his 1100-page book, so it must be something special. Certainly the berries aren't good for fresh eating -- a bite of one of the very tart berries reveals why they lack the popularity of, say, wild blueberries. I'll settle for them being a feast for the eyes!


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