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Burnished bush: viburnums

THE BALTIMORE SUN

There seems to be a place in every yard or garden -- wet, dry, shady, sunny -- that calls for a problem-solving shrub. Of course, we want it to be handsome, carefree, have attractive foliage, lovely flowers, stunning fall color, an artistic outline even when bare in winter, and be a fine wildlife plant as well. This is a tall order to fill. Well, meet the viburnums.

Viburnums are a genus including more than 150 deciduous, evergreen and semi-evergreen woody plants. Although many of the most popular cultivated varieties originated in Asia, many excellent species are native to North America and the mid-Atlantic region.

"I just love them," says Judy Blaisdell, landscape designer at Garland's Garden Center in Catonsville. "They have so much to offer. They make great understory shrubs, and have year-round interest. They're not a one-season wonder like some plants. And some of them are very fragrant."

Blaisdell notes that viburnums should be sited carefully in the landscape, because most don't like a lot of sun. "But other than that, they can be used almost anywhere." She recommends them both as specimen plants and in a shrub border or woodland planting.

From small to large

While viburnums are usually thought of as shrubs, their size and habit can vary greatly depending on species. This too makes them valuable additions to a landscaper's repertoire.

The newer dwarf varieties, such as Viburnum opulus "Nanum," are "exciting for smaller, city gardens," says Blaisdell. This dwarf European cranberry bush is 2 by 3 feet at maturity, bears white flowers (but no berries) and is brilliant in the fall. It does not like wet feet.

V. juddii, at 6 to 8 feet, is another she advocates for city gardens. "It flowers in late April and May, smells wonderful and does well in the heat."

She also suggests planting V. carlesii, the Korean spice viburnum, by a door or patio where you can enjoy it frequently. An April bloomer that grows to 8 feet in height and width, it has an intense, sweet fragrance, silvery leaves and 5-inch blossoms. V. x burkwoodii, with a lovely, gardenia-like perfume, is another beautiful selection, which blooms in early spring with the daffodils. It grows 6 to 8 feet tall and wide. V. x burkwoodii "Mohawk" is a highly desirable viburnum, with deep pink buds opening white and a sweet clover scent.

Blaisdell, however, says her personal favorite is the new-on-the-scen "Summer Snowflake," a viburnun with graceful, horizontal branch- ing. To Blaisdell, "the flowers resemble lacecap hydran-geas. It will flower in half shade or sun and will bloom through the summer," getting about 10 feet tall and wide.

Native plants

Joe Barley, owner of Clear Ridge Nursery in Union Bridge, which specializes in growing native plants for wholesale and designer installations, cites a number of reasons why the viburnums are among his favorite plants.

"First, they're very versatile and durable. They endure a wide range of soil types, from fine to coarse, and pH [from 5.6 to 6.6]. They make excellent plants for wildlife, supplying colorful berries in the fall and just the sort of cover birds prefer; blackhaw viburnum, V. prunifolium, in particular has a perpendicular branching habit that is attractive to small birds."

Barley points out that all native American viburnums are deciduous and have vivid fall foliage. He also advises giving them ample space to showcase their charms, either as specimen plants or massed in groups.

"Viburnums are very easy to grow," confirms Robert Key, horticulturist at Wayside Gardens nursery in Hodges, S.C. Just follow a few simple steps.

"The main things are to prepare the soil well and allow a big enough planting hole for the roots to spread out. The soil should drain well and have some compost added," he says

Viburnums, he says, should be pruned in the spring right after flowering, since they set next year's flower buds soon after. The plants should be fertilized in late summer with a "bloom booster" to encourage large flowers and heavy bloom next year.

"The best selection of plants will be in the spring," Key also notes, and "the earlier you purchase, the better your chances of getting the exact variety you are looking for."

His own favorite? The viburnum, V. plicatum tomentosum "Shasta" with its clusters of flowers in double rows. "I love its low, horizontal branching habit," he says. "Plus, it has bright red berries, and only gets about 6 feet tall by 10 feet across, a nice size for smaller gardens."

There is one warning, though. Once you plant a viburnum in your garden, you probably won't be satisfied with just one.

Four viburnums to look for

When it comes to viburnum, Joe Barley, owner of Clear Ridge Nursery in Union Bridge, has four favorites. They are all well-suited to this area and available through nurseries and catalogs, he says.

* Arrowwood viburnum, V. dentatum, is a vase-shaped shrub with showy white flowers in June followed by blue berries. It grows to 6 or 8 feet tall and wide, will tolerate fairly dry to very moist soil conditions and has crimson fall foliage.

* Nannyberry, V. lentago, while 15 to 20 feet tall, can be trained as a small tree, if desired. Its small, lustrous leaves turn red or purple-red in fall. It bears flat clusters of white flowers in May and later has berries providing food for birds.

* Blackhaw viburnum is similar to Nannyberry. Like the Nannyberry, it prefers dryish soil and will not stand being flooded, making it an excellent candidate for upland sites or small woodlands on suburban lots.

* Possum haw, V. nudum, with its creamy flowers in June, is a good all-round plant, tolerating sun or shade, moist and drier sites alike and growing between 12 and 15 feet tall. The berries can exhibit a good bit of color variety on one bush, from rose pink to dusky blue; the oval leaves turn mahogany in fall.

Sources

Carroll Gardens

444 East Main St.

Westminster, Md. 21157

410-876-7336

www.carrollgardens.com

Fairweather Gardens

P.O. Box 330

Greenwich, N.J. 08323

856-451-6261

Garland's Garden Center

1109 Ingleside Ave.

Catonsville, Md. 21207

410-747-5151

www.garlandsgardencenter. com

Wayside Gardens

1 Garden Lane

Hodges, S.C. 29695

1-800-845-1124

www.waysidegardens.com

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