Korean Spice Viburnum Plant Profile

The Fragrant Spicebush

Viburnum carlesii

 nickkurzenko / Getty Images

Korean spice viburnum (Viburnum carlesii), is a deciduous flowering shrub with wonderfully aromatic flowers. It grows in USDA plant hardiness zones 4 through 7 and makes a great specimen plant for spring blossoms. The flowers start as pink buds and change to white blooms with a hint of the early pink color. The white flower clusters are nicely rounded and very fragrant.

Be careful not to confuse this with "spicebush" (Lindera benzoin) or "California allspice" or "California spicebush" (Calycanthus occidentalis). Viburnum carlesii is in the moschatel family of plants, which also includes elderberry (Sambucus). A popular cultivar is 'Aurora.'

Botanical Name Viburnum carlesii
Common Name Korean spicebush
Plant Type Deciduous flowering shrub
Mature Size 6 feet tall and wide
Sun Exposure Full sun to part shade
Soil Type Moist, well-drained
Soil pH 5.6 to 6.6
Bloom Time Spring
Flower Color White
Hardiness Zones 4 to 7
Native Area Korea, Japan
Viburnum carlesii
Nahhan / Getty Images
Viburnum carlesii
 nickkurzenko / Getty Images

How to Grow Korean Spice Viburnum

Buds for Korean spice viburnums form on the prior season's growth. Therefore, if you wish to prune the plants back in order to shape them and/or restrict their size, do your pruning just after they have finished flowering. Simply cut the tips to promote branching and a bushier look. In addition, remove any dead branches or those that rub against each other.

Light

Plant the shrub in full sun to partial shade.

Soil

These bushes grow best in the moist but well-drained ground that has a soil pH on the acidic side. They do not do well in very wet soil.

Water

Maintain evenly moist soil with regular watering. Weekly watering is typical in many areas, but drier climates or seasons may necessitate more frequent watering.

Temperature and Humidity

Viburnums are generally tolerant of high heat but do best with some shade during the hottest times of summer. They are relatively drought-resistant once established and are suitable for most dry climates (but prefer more humid climates); however, they should not dry out completely and benefit from a weekly deep watering (at least) during dry spells.

Fertilizer

Feed the plant in spring with a slow-release tree and shrub fertilizer to support overall health and promote future blooms. Don't feed late in summer, as this can force new growth that may be damaged by fall frost.

Landscape Uses for Korean Spicebush

The single most outstanding feature of Korean spice viburnum shrubs is their aromatic quality. Another plus is that these plants are among the flowering shrubs that bloom in early spring, satisfying our craving to see landscape color as soon as possible once winter ends. Honorable mention goes to the color of their fall foliage. In fact, they are undoubtedly one of the best shrubs for fall color.

Due to their exceptional fragrance, you might include these bushes in your entryway landscaping or as foundation shrubs to fully appreciate their aroma. They also attract butterflies and are a preferred food source of the caterpillars of spring azure blue butterflies. Wild birds are attracted to the shrubs, to feed on the berries (if present), but the plant is generally considered to be a rabbit-proof flower.

Common Pests

One problem you may experience in caring for this bush is leaf curl (at the tips of branches). The culprit will most likely be aphids. If you can manage to catch the little buggers in action, spray them with the organic herbicide neem oil. But aphids can come and go very quickly, leaving a damaged leaf behind. Luckily, leaf curl, if restricted to just a relatively small portion of the entire plant, does no long-term harm. It is problematic only on an aesthetic level, marring the appearance of the foliage during that summer and fall. Prune off the affected branch tips and dispose of them properly, and the plant will be none the worse for it.

Pollinating Korean Spicebush

Flowers on Korean spicebush are replaced by red berries in summer, provided a compatible cross-pollinator is present. In other words, these bushes are not self-pollinating. In autumn, the berries mature to a dark, almost black color. But if you are looking forward to fall color, count more on the foliage than on the berries. The fall leaves start out reddish but can morph into a purplish color.

If you still wish to try for berries, you'll be faced with the cross-pollination challenge, which is twofold:

  1. The pollinator plant cannot be of the same cultivar. So, for example, you cannot pollinate an 'Aurora' with another 'Aurora.' Instead, you would have to pair your 'Aurora' with another viburnum from the same species (a hybrid bred from the same species will also work).
  2. The pollinator plant must also come into bloom at the same time as the plant from which you are trying to get berries. Because plants bloom at different times in different areas, ask local nurseries or extension service to recommend a suitable pollinator.

One possibility is to pair a V. carlesii with a V. x burkwoodii 'Mohawk,' since the latter is a hybrid cultivar, with one of the parents being V. carlesii. But before you buy, inquire at the garden center as to whether the two plants come into bloom at the same time in your area. Better yet, if you will be shopping for the two at the same time, buy them only if both are blooming.