Choosing and Growing Viburnum Shrubs

Flowering Landscape Shrubs Loved by Birds and Butterflies

Japanese Snowball (Viburnum plicatum) blooming profusely
Viburnum plicatum. Zen Rial / Getty Images

Viburnums have long been one of our most popular flowering landscape shrubs, with more than 150 species available. With varieties suitable for USDA hardiness zones 2 to 9, you can find a variety to suit any garden need: wet or dry, sun or shade, natural or formal, shrub or tree, native or exotic.  Bloom times span early spring through June and are followed by attractive fruit and outstanding fall foliage.

Description

Viburnums are well-behaved members of the honeysuckle family. They can be grown as either shrubs or trees, although tree forms may require some pruning to achieve the desired shape. The U.S. National Arboretum has done extensive breeding to create many hardy, pest-resistant varieties.

There is no single type of viburnum foliage. It can be rounded, lance-shaped or toothed, smooth, velvety or rough. There are some evergreen and semi-evergreen varieties and many deciduous varieties with outstanding fall color.

Most viburnums have either white or pinkish flowers which are sometimes fragrant. The fragrant varieties that are most familiar in the landscape are native to Asia. The flowers themselves come in three major types:

  • Flat clusters of florets 
  • Flat umbels outlined with larger flowers, resembling lace-cap hydrangeas 
  • Dome-shaped, snowball-like clusters

Almost all viburnums produce attractive clusters of fruits that are popular with birds, wildlife, and humans.

However, most viburnums are not self-pollinating and will require another variety to cross-pollinate in order to yield fruit. 

Landscape Uses

Viburnums work great as hedges or in mass groupings and also make interesting specimen plants or anchors in borders.

Growing Vibernums

Most viburnums prefer full sun but will adjust to partial shade.

They like a moderately fertile soil with a pH between 5.6 to 6.6., although many do just fine in alkaline soils. In general, viburnums are not terribly particular about where they grow.

When selecting viburnum plants, choose a young specimen, since viburnums can be difficult to transplant when they get older. Early spring is the best time for transplanting, giving them a full season to get adjusted.

Most viburnums now sold are crosses and cannot be started from seed. You can propagate from softwood cuttings during the summer or simply layer branches in the fall. By spring there should be a new plant you can cut off and move.

Problems

That few pests will bother viburnums is one of the reasons they have become so popular in the landscape. Recently the viburnum leaf beetle (VLB) has been introduced into North America through Canada and has begun making its way south. The VLB, Pyrrhalta viburni (Paykull), is capable of great damage and is being closely watched.

Types of Vibernums

You will find an ever-increasing number of viburnum varieties to choose from. Here are some time-tested choices to consider:

Asian Varieties

Burkwood viburnum ( Viburnum x burkwoodii): Suitable for USDA hardiness zones 5 to 8, this variety grows to about 8 feet in height and spread, and is extremely fragrant.

Outstanding cultivars include:

  • 'Anne Russell', pink flowers and red fall foliage, compact
  • 'Mohawk' has a spicy fragrance with white snowball flowers that open from red buds. Introduced by the U.S. National Arboretum, it grows to 8 to 10 feet in height and spread, and is suitable for USDA hardiness zones 4 to 8. 

Korean spice or Mayflower viburnum (V. carlesii): Suitable for USDA hardiness zones 5 to 7, this plant stays under 6 feet in height and spread. It has pink buds that are very fragrant and open into white snowball flowers. Leaves can be either velvety or rough, like sandpaper.

  • 'Compactum' is a slow grower that spreads to only 3 feet tall and wide in 10 years. 
  • V. carlesii  x carlcephalum 'Cayuga' is a low grower with pink buds that are slightly fragrant. It has bright red fall foliage with black fruits. This plant is suitable for USDA hardiness zones 5 to 8.
  • C. x juddii grows to 8 feet and is more open than its parent, V. carlesii

Other Notable Non-Natives

Doublefile viburnum ( V. plicatum f. tomentosum): Suitable for growing in USDA hardiness zones 4 to 8, this plant grows to a mature height of 10 feet, with a 12-foot spread. It has flowers in flat, double rows, great orangy-red fall foliage, and clusters of red-black fruits. A few varieties are fragrant.

  • V. p. 'Mariesii' and 'Shasta' have the conventional white lace-cap flowers.
  • V. p. 'Kern's Pink' has soft-pink snowball style flowers and purplish edging on the leaves.
  • V. p.‘Shasta’ grows to 6 feet. It flowers in May with clusters of pure white flowers followed by red fruits. It is suitable for USDA hardiness zones 5 to 8.

Linden viburnum (V. dilatatum): Suitable for USDA hardiness zones 5 to 8, this viburnum grows to a mature height of 5 feet with an 8-foot spread. It is one of the showiest varieties due to both the flowers and the red fruit clusters.

  • V. d. ‘Catskill’ grows to only about 5 feet in height and spread.

European cranberry bush (V. opulus): Suitable for use in zones 4 to 8, this plant grows to a mature height of 15 feet with a 12-foot spread. Although not generally the showiest of viburnums, there are some worthwhile cultivars: 

  • V. o.'Xanthocarpum' is an exceptional white lace-cap type with persistent yellow fruit.
  • V. o.'Nanum' is a dwarf, growing to only 2 feet high with a 3-foot spread a span of 10 years.
  • V. o. 'Roseum' has snowball flowers that resemble hydrangeas, starting out pale-green and change to white. ‘Roseum is a sterile viburnum.

Evergreen Varieties

David viburnum (V. davidii): Suitable for USDA hardiness zones 7 to 9, this viburnum grows to 3 to 5 feet in height and spread. A native of China, this is one of the most attractive evergreen varieties.
It has dark-green leaves with dark blue fruit and has tiny, tubular white flowers borne on the stem tips. This plant requires both a male and female in order to bear fruit.

Prague viburnum (V. 'Pragense'): This viburnum is suitable for USDA hardiness zones 6 to 8, and grows to a height and spread of about 10 feet.

  This rounded, bushy evergreen shrub glossy, dark green leaves that are deeply veined and contrast with the tubular white flowers that form in domed umbels.

Leatherleaf viburnum (V. rhytidophyllum): This plant is suitable for USDA hardiness zones 5 to 8, and grows to a height of 15 feet with a 12-foot spread. Native to China, this plant is semi-evergreen in colder climates, losing its leaves when temperatures dip below 10 degrees F.  It is not especially attractive in the winter. Its leaves are damaged by winter cold and tend to fall off in the spring, as new foliage emerges.

  • V. X rhytidophylloides 'Willowwood' has deeply veined green foliage and flowers in the fall.
  • V. X rhytidophylloides 'Allegheny' has dark-green leaves that set of the reddish-black fruits. It flowers in the spring.

Good Choices For Standards

These viburnums can be grown to have a pleasing tree-like shape:  

  • Viburnum plicatum var. tomentosum 'Newport': This variety grows in USDA hardiness zones 4 to 8, with a mature height of 10 feet with a 12-foot spread.
  • Viburnum carlesii 'Compactum': This plant grows in USDA hardiness zones 5 to 8. It has a mature height of 3 to 4 feet with a similar spread. 
  • Viburnum. X bodnantense 'Dawn': This viburnum grows in USDA hardiness zones 7 to 8. It has a mature height of about 10 feet with a 6-foot spread. 

North American Shrub-Form Natives

Viburnums native to North America don’t possess the intense, spicy fragrance of their Asian cousins. However, they do offer a fabulous fall display and abundant fruit clusters, popular with birds and wildlife. Most are tough enough for hostile urban environments and many are xeric or drought tolerant. As with all viburnums, they are bothered by few pest problems and possess good disease resistance. The only pruning required is for removing dead wood and to shape or maintain size.

Arrowwood viburnum (Viburnum dentatum): This species grows in USDA hardiness zones 3 to 8, achieving a mature size of about 10 feet with a similar spread. A native of eastern North America, this plant is very adaptable, growing wild in woodlands, bogs, and along stream banks. It likes full sun to partial shade and is not particular about soil. It can be naturalized and is well suited to moist areas, but is fast-growing and will sucker. In spring, it produces white blossoms. The coarsely toothed, pale green foliage changes to yellow, red, or reddish purple in the fall. The foliage is a larval food for several moths and the beautiful spring azure butterfly, and the fruit is enjoyed by several species of birds, including bluebirds, cardinals, mockingbirds , and robins. Many birds use the shrubs for nesting and protection,

  • V. dentatum 'Morton' has a rounded, upright habit and deep burgundy fall foliage in fall.
  • V. dentatum 'Blue Muffin' named for its intense blue fruits. It is more compact (3 to 5 feet tall) and makes a great hedge. It’s also a good choice for containers or in foundation plantings.
  • V. dentatum ‘Synnestvedt’ Emerald Luster has lustrous dark, green foliage.

Nannyberry (Viburnum lentago): This species grows in USDA hardiness zones 2 to 8, to a mature height of about 12 feet with a 10-foot spread. It prefers moist shade but will weather sun and dry soil. Lace-cap type flowers in creamy white appear in mid- to late-May. The fruits transition from green to yellow to pink and finally deep blue.

Swamp-haw Viburnum (Viburnum nudum): This plant grows in zones 5 to 9, where it achieves a mature height of about 12 feet with a 6-foot spread. It grows wild from Long Island to Florida but does equally well when cultivated. It prefers a location with full sun to partial shade. This variety produces white flowers in late June, followed by clusters of round drupes that start out green and pass through shades of white and pink to finish a midnight blue. The shrub is particularly attractive when it has fruits in various transitional colors. The foliage turns reddish-purple in the fall.

  • V. nudum ‘Winterthur’ has even brighter red coloring and more profuse fruit clusters.
  • V. nudum ‘Wintertur’ is self-sterile and needs to be planted with a different cultivar, such as the straight species V. nudum, in order to cross-pollinate and produce fruit.

Hobblebush (Viburnum lantanoides), formerly known as Viburnum alnifolium: This variety grows in USDA hardiness zone 4 to 7, achieving a maximum height of about 8 feet with a spread of 12 feet. A native to northeastern to mid-Atlantic North America, it tends to grow a bit disorderly and is probably best suited to a naturalized setting. The branches of this plant will take root wherever they touch the soil. Hobblebush is an understory plant that likes moist, shady woodlands. Flat umbels of white flowers appear in May, followed by red fruit clusters that age to the typical blue-black. The leaves are large and fuzzy, and this is one of the earliest viburnums to develop their fall colors of reddish golds.

North American Tree-Form Natives 

Maple-leafed viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium): This plant grows in USDA hardiness zones 4 to 8, and achieves a height of 3 to 6 feet with a 4-foot spread. Maple-leafed viburnum populates woodlands from New Brunswick to North Carolina, but it is not an aggressive grower and is fine in a border planting. Its canopy is open and casts only dappled shade. It is a good choice for a dry shade location. Flat umbels of creamy white flower appear in late May, followed by almost black fruits. This variety turns an unusual pink in the fall. Maple-leafed viburnum is a larval food source for the spring azure butterfly as well as a nectar source for the golden-banded skipper. Both songbirds and game birds grapple for its fruits. 

American cranberry bush (Viburnum trilobum or Viburnum opulus var. americanum): This plant grows in USDA hardiness zones 3 to 9, where it achieves a mature height of about 15 feet with a spread of 12 feet. It has bright red fruits that look a lot like cranberries and persist well into the winter, making it a favorite of many songbirds and game birds. Although the fruits are not cranberries, they are edible and safe for humans and are sometimes used to make jelly. American cranberry bush makes a good screen or hedge. Its fall color is a rich burgundy. This plant grows wild from New Brunswick through British Columbia and south to New York through Oregon but is not well suited to warmer zones below zone 7.

  • V. trilobum 'Phillips' is  a dwarf selection with flavorsome fruit.
  • V. trilobum 'Redwing' has particularly nice wine colored fall foliage and the bonus of red-tinged spring foliage.
  • V. trilobum 'Compactum Alfredo' makes a nice low hedge.

Black-haw viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium): This species grows in USDA hardiness zones 3 to 9. When mature, it is about 12 feet high with an 8-foot spread. Black-haw viburnum does fine in shade or sun and tolerates dry conditions. It doesn’t like salt.  It is notable for its pebbled bark, the red stems of its leaves, and the yellow stamens in its white flowers. Its fruit makes a good substitute for crabapples.The dark blue fruits make a nice jelly, but they are usually devoured by birds or wildlife. The fall foliage is red to purple.