Plant profile: viburnum
Of all the plants grown for their late-season foliage colour or berries, hard-working viburnums can hold their own
Viburnums are prized for their autumn berries and foliage, and there is one to suit every garden. Horticulturist Andy McIndoe selects 13 of the best
Viburnums are such versatile shrubs, and they feature in so many gardens, that they are easily taken for granted. We all have our favourites, and our preferences may be based on fragrance, flowering season, foliage (evergreen or deciduous) or just plain availability. It is easy to overlook their enduring contribution: these are hard-working plants, most of which have more than one season of interest. Flowers are often followed by colourful fruits and many deciduous varieties colour brilliantly in autumn, often putting on a more impressive display than they did earlier in the year.
I first came across the birchleaf viburnum, Viburnum betulifolium, at Llanover Garden in Monmouthshire. Llanover is a treasure trove of choice trees and shrubs. On an autumn day, this particular viburnum was an arresting sight, its arching branches weighed down with abundant, glistening clusters of translucent, ruby fruits. No leaves, just jewels on the branches.
Viburnum betulifolium is too big for many gardens, but Viburnum opulus ‘Compactum’ is no less impressive. A smaller form of the British native guelder rose, its loose clusters of shining, spherical fruits start to colour in late summer and persist until after the leaves have fallen. The foliage departs in a blaze of glory: scarlet, flame and gold. As much as I love the so-called snowball, Viburnum opulus ‘Roseum’, with its impressive spring flower clusters, is a one-hit wonder: no autumn leaf colour and no berries.
Hardy evergreen shrubs that remain modest in size are always at a premium, hence the enduring popularity of Viburnum davidii as a landscape plant. Because of its extensive use in commercial projects, this superb evergreen is often shunned by gardeners and designers. Few shrubs have such handsome foliage, however, and if you select female plants they produce spectacular blueblack fruits. Buy plants when they are in fruit in autumn and winter and pair with a male pollinator for reliable results.
I remember showing Viburnum ‘Le Bois Marquis’ at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show a few years ago, but I can’t say that it generated very much excitement. The foliage was a glossy dark green and handsome, but f lowers were notably absent. Its two best seasons were still to come: summer f lower clusters and wonderful autumn leaf colour with the bonus of berries. This compact evergreen deserves wider planting, but a young plant in a pot will never show its real potential.
This is true of many wonderful garden plants. You might pass a Viburnum rhytidophyllum in a pot in a nursery or garden centre without giving it so much as a second glance, but see a mature specimen in a large garden, with shining clusters of scarlet and black fruits displayed against deep-green leaves, and its value is clearly evident.
Perhaps it is because some viburnums, such as Viburnum tinus and Viburnum x bodnantense, are so widely planted that other notable species and cultivars are overlooked. Admittedly some are more particular about their growing conditions, which limits their use. Viburnum furcatum is an example of this. I came across this wonderful plant on a visit to RHS Garden Rosemoor in Devon. On a glorious autumn day, the garden was full of glowing enkianthus, stewartia, fothergilla, hamamelis and a host of other glorious shrubs that thrive on acid soil. For me, Viburnum furcatum was the star of the show. Those superb leaves, beautifully arranged on the branches, perfect despite the onset of rich autumn tints.
Autumn really is the most colourful season, and the longest, so it is worth planting for, and you can’t go far wrong with viburnums. No flash in the pan colour, gone with the first strong wind, here. Viburnums deliver long-lasting autumn interest, an encore after earlier flowers.
• Author Andy McIndoe is a writer, broadcaster and horiculturist. His recommendations for the best viburnums for autumn interest can be found over the next five pages.