Memories Are Made From These Plants

With their delicate spring flowers, beautiful fall foliage and colorful winter berries, native viburnums entice both people and wildlife

  • Carol Chernega
  • Oct 04, 2004

WHEN I WAS A CHILD, my grandmother had an old-fashioned garden filled with lilacs, roses and a viburnum shrub we called the snowball bush. Its fragrant flowers were as big and white as snowballs. Years later, when I began landscaping my own garden, I wanted to include plants that reminded me of those days in her backyard. My local nursery owner advised me that the European cranberrybush (Viburnum opulus ‘Roseum’) is one of the most popular varieties of viburnums. People often request it, he said, for the same reason I did: They fondly remember it from their youth.

Unfortunately, European cranberrybush is a nonnative species that can become invasive. Its seeds can spread outside your garden and take root in surrounding natural areas. Fortunately, there are 15 native species of viburnums that you can plant instead. All of them flower in May or June, providing blooms for pollinators. Birds and small mammals will eat their berries in fall and winter. And autumn is the ideal time to plant these versatile shrubs, since the cool weather will give them enough time to get established before the spring growing season.

Alan Wade, co-owner of Minnesota’s Prairie Moon Nursery, which specializes in native plants, recommends American cranberrybush (V. opulus var. americanum) as an excellent alternative to the European cranberrybush. “Its beauty as well as its adaptability to a wide range of growing conditions make it an ideal native shrub for gardens,” he says. Although its flowers are not as showy as the European variety, he notes, “its berries persist long into winter, making it an important food source.”

Members of the honeysuckle family, viburnums are fast-growing plants. I cultivated a small American cranberrybush 10 years ago. Now, it is more than 8 feet tall. Every May, it rewards me with fragrant flowers that attract butterflies and bees. Last June, I saw a mockingbird guarding her nest in the branches. In fall, I often see cardinals and other birds eating the red berries.

According to Eric Oesterling, a Pennsylvania State Cooperative Extension Agent, another good native alternative to European cranberrybush for eastern U.S. residents is mapleleaf viburnum (V. acerifolium). “It grows naturally in the East as an understory shrub,” he says, making it a good choice for dry shade. As its name suggests, the shrub’s leaves are shaped like a maple leaf and provide beautiful fall color. Oesterling also recommends nannyberry (V. lentago) and arrowwood (V. dentatum); both are well-suited to colder climates.

People who live in Southern states can cultivate blackhaw (V. prunifolium). Though adaptable to moist or dry soils, it needs more sun than most viburnums to produce abundant flowers and fruit. Another good choice for gardeners who live in the South is rusty blackhaw (V. rufidulum). It prefers well-drained soils.

If your garden is swampy, try witherod viburnum (V. cassinoides) or possomhaw viburnum (V. nudum). Both are suited for soggy areas. You can’t go wrong planting either—or any of the others suitable to your region. Chances are their beauty and the wildlife they attract will provide you with fond memories for years to come.

Carol Chernega is a Pennsylvania-based garden writer.

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