We were surprised that first spring when what we thought were six-foot maple saplings in our little patch of woods began bearing white, lacy flowers. Fortunately, my husband was reading A Southern Garden at the time, and with Elizabeth Lawrence’s help, he identified the shrub as a Southeastern native viburnum.
The species indigenous to our woods, Downy Arrowwood (Viburnum rafinesquianum), and its close relative Arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum), are found throughout the Triangle.
Wild Raisin (Viburnum nudum) and Mapleleaf viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium) are other species reaching less than ten feet in height that are native to our area. In the wild, these shrubby viburnums usually sucker and form small colonies. Blackhaw (Viburnum prunifolium) and Southern or Rusty Blackhaw (Viburnum rufidulum) are small trees that can reach 30 feet tall and also occur locally.
All of these viburnums are deciduous with opposite, often ovate, leaves that are attractive shades of green in summer. The leaves of the Wild Raisin are especially thick and glossy, and the foliage of tree viburnums is also quite shiny.
Most viburnums feature delicate, white or creamy flowers and produce fruits favored by songbirds including mockingbirds and waxwings. Not only are the flowers of these Southeastern viburnums excellent nectar sources, they are host plants for spring and summer Azure butterflies.
Viburnums are subtle in spring, but grow more colorful as the seasons’ progress. The berries of some species change from green to pink to blue or black. Dramatic foliage color combines with shining berries and creates a spectacular effect in autumn.
If you can tear your eyes away from the brilliant poplar, sweet gum, and maple leaves in the high autumn canopy, you may be rewarded with an equally stunning, if more subtle, display of color. The maple-shaped leaves of Mapleleaf viburnum turn incredible shades of peach, pink, and lavender in fall, providing the perfect backdrop for its ebony berries. Alternatively, you might spot an Arrowwood with toothed leaves glowing pink and purple over black berries or a Wild Raisin with glossy burgundy leaves and deep blue fruits.
All of these Southeastern natives thrive in gardens, sometimes in the most difficult of circumstances, without fuss or bother. Mapleleafs tolerate drought and provide color in the deepest of shade. Arrowwood, Wild Raisin, and the Blackhaws do well in either shade or sun, but grow more rounded and bear more fruit in sun.
Writers such as Lawrence have recommended native viburnums since the 1940’s, but only a few species and selections are available from nurseries and garden centers. Still, the savvy gardeners who seek them out will be well rewarded for the effort by the beauty and benefit to wildlife these unsung local heroes provide.
Dale Batchelor is the founder of Gardener by Nature LLC, a company offering garden consultation, design, management services, and gardening classes. Her display garden, co-created with her husband, John L. Thomas, is a certified National Wildlife Federation Backyard Habitat and a native plant habitat recognized by the North Carolina Native Plant Society.