“A garden without a viburnum is akin to life without music and art.” — Michael Dirr
What are Viburnums?
The genus Viburnum includes 150-175 species found throughout the northern hemisphere. Many are suitable for cultivation and can be used for a variety of purposes—massing, hedges and screens, accents, or as single specimens. They can range in height from one to over thirty feet, some have sublimely smelling blossoms, many have ornamental fruit and striking fall foliage color. Most are deciduous, while a few hold their leaves into the winter.
In the opening chapter of his monograph on the genus, Michael Dirr relates how few characteristics the numerous and disparate species actually share:
"What biological ingredients (leaf, flower, fruit, seed, stem, pubescence) constitute a viburnum? . . . . Viburnums umbrella many morphological characteristics. According to the list that follows they may be . . .
fertile and sterile
all sterile and showy
no discernible odor
. . . or combinations and permutations of the above.
Where is this leading? Actually, to anarchy, because there are no common characteristics that can be applied across all species of Viburnum except that:
1. the fruit is a drupe, generally ellipsoidal, flattened, ovid to rounded, with a fleshy coat, hard bony endocarp, and a single seed within; and,
2. the leaves are always arranged opposite; a few species, occasionally, have three leaves at a node."*
Clearly, even without getting into the myriad cultivars, Viburnums are an extremely varied group. The good thing about this is that whatever your need, there is surely a Viburnum to fill it.
*Viburnums: Flowering Shrubs for Every Season. Portland: Timber Press, 2007
What's in a name?
Our first written record of the name Viburnum comes to us from Virgil in his First Eclogue, c. 40 B.C.E., where, discussing the city of Rome, Tityrus says:
sic parvis componere magna solebam.
Verum hæc tantum alias inter caput extulit urbes,
Quantum lenta solent inter viburna cupressi.
I used to compare great things with small.
But this has lifted up her head among other cities,
as much as cypresses do among the bending wafaring trees.
"The name is derived from a viendo, which signifies to bind. The ancient writers seem to have called any shrub, that was fit for this purpose, viburnum: but the more modern authors have restrained that name to express only our wayfaring-tree [Viburnum lantana]"
(Text, translation, and notes from Bucolicorum, Ecologæ Decem, John Martyn's edition, Oxford, 1820.)
Various other editions have translated Viburnum as Guelder Rose (now reserved for V. opulus), osier, Lantana, and Wayfaringtree. Over time, the word changed from referring solely to V. lantana, so that by the time printed herbals came into use, Viburnum referred to the entire group—what we now identify as the genus.
In John Gerard's The Herball Or Generall Historie of Plantes (London: John Norton, 1597) we read an early description of as well as uses for Viburnum. [Read other early descriptions from Linnæus, de Candolle, etc.]:
What Viburnums Are On Campus?
click plant names for species/cultivar information and images
Maxwell Arboretum Collection
Other Campus Viburnums