Viburnums just need a little lovin'

The shrub - or is it a tree? - doesn't get the respect of some other, far less hardy, plants.

Posted: September 28, 2007

Martha Stewart puts hydrangeas on the cover of her magazine, and bingo, people are lusting after the old blue mop heads like never before.

What about viburnums? Does anyone even know what they are? They're shrubs, they're trees, they're so many things, but mostly they're handsome and productive year-round and feeling no need to shout about it.

Hydrangeas are beautiful in summer, all right, parading their big fat puffballs all over the place. And, true, those blossoms of blue and violet, pink and white are fetching even as they fade into fall.

But come cold weather, those gaudy girls fold.

Viburnums aren't gaudy, and they don't fold with frost. In fact, they may be the garden bargain of the century - if only they'd get the credit they deserve.

Problem is, those masses of tiny white or pink viburnum blossoms look a lot like hydrangea. Those floating layers of flowery whiteness? Dead ringer for dogwood. And those berries? Must be holly, right?

Paula Wallach knows her hydrangeas and dogwoods and hollies. Now, after taking viburnum workshops at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square and Scott Arboretum at Swarthmore College, she knows them, too.

"I never knew viburnums existed," she says, "and now I see them all over."

Soon, she'll be seeing them in her own garden, on a half-acre in Wallingford. This is a perfect time to plant. The retired social worker and her husband are gradually redoing the landscape, and she'd like to replace some tired rhododendrons with her new favorites - Viburnum nudum 'Winterthur' and Viburnum burkwoodii.

Wallach likes the former for its mix of tiny pink and blue berries and standout purple leaves, and the latter for its "added attraction," a spicy-sweet fragrance.

"I love viburnums now. They're beautiful plants," Wallach says. "I'd really like to get some."

There are about 150 species of evergreen or leafy shrubs and trees under the viburnum genetic tent, something for just about every garden - and gardener.

Andrew Bunting, Scott's curator, says the viburnum's variety, toughness and beauty recommend it to beginning gardeners and veterans alike.

"You'll get a lot of pleasure out of them, most likely over multiple seasons of the year," he says. That could mean flowers, foliage, fruit and fragrance, possibly accompanied by two other valuable qualities: resistance to heat and deer.

Many viburnums can be found online or at garden centers, and even at big-box stores. They're relatively inexpensive ($20 to $30) and quick to bulk up, growing maybe a foot or two a year.

Michael Dirr wouldn't be without them.

"A garden without viburnum is like life without art or music," says the renowned horticulture professor at the University of Georgia, who lectured at Burpee's Fordhook Farm in Doylestown last week on the virtues of viburnums.

A bit hyperbolic, for sure, but Dirr's exuberance underscores a viburnum lover's frustration that this versatile and colorful shrub remains "largely unknown."

"Everyone knows hydrangea, but would the average guy even know what he's looking at if you showed him a viburnum?" asks Dirr, author of Viburnums: Flowering Shrubs for Every Season, published this month by Timber Press ($39.95).

"We need to move this stuff out of the shadows and into the mainstream," he says.

Bunting does what he can, happily showing off his arboretum's collection of viburnums. Too numerous to count, they're around every corner of the 330-acre college campus - or seem to be.

Here, viburnums are an important part of a rolling tapestry that includes ferns, hellebores, hostas and boxwoods. Some stand alone. Others are tucked into garden beds.

The lower limbs of some of the bigger specimens have been pruned to allow room for understory delights: the heart-shaped leaves of elegant Epimedium, or bishop's hat; the feathery white plumes of Aruncus dioicus, or goatsbeard; plenty of sedges, more ferns.

If Wallach is just discovering such joys, Claudia Heffner has known about them for a while. She has about 10 viburnums in her garden in Scotch Plains, N.J., including Viburnum macrocephalum, a Chinese snowball variety that's dense and rounded with large white flower balls. (Dirr says he has one that prompts people to stop and ask, "What hydrangea is that?")

"A lot of things bloom in early spring and then they don't do much, but viburnums just look wonderful all year long," Wallach says. And what other plant, besides her Viburnum nudum 'Winterthur,' "gets red, white and blue berries right around Labor Day"?

So perhaps there's hope for the viburnum. Actually, Bunting believes shrubs in general are enjoying renewed interest from gardeners after a bit of a hiatus.

"Absolutely everyone had shrubs starting in the 1930s," he says, citing the ubiquitous azaleas, rhodies, yews and spirea that inspired shrub fatigue in later years.

Now, he says, thanks to growing research into new varieties and the advocacy of prominent garden designers and nurseries, "people are seeing shrubs as a way to diversify the garden and as something more permanent than perennials.

"This group of plants is really taking off," Bunting says.

Leading the charge, of course, is the Martha Stewart, teacher's pet, cover girl of shrubs that so often steals the viburnum's thunder: the lovely hydrangea.


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Contact gardening writer Virginia Smith at 215-854-5720 or vsmith@phillynews.com.

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