Plant 359

Viburnum species (Viburnaceae)


The viburnums are common shrubs in gardens and hedgerows, although they often go unnoticed. The genus is variable in appearance and is not always easy to recognise unless flowering. It contains approximately 200 species, whilst many cultivars have become popular garden plants.

Viburnum are typically medium-sized shrubs with opposite leaves, which may be deciduous or evergreen, with corymbs of white or pink flowers that are followed by berries. The genus is widespread throughout northern temperate regions of North America and Eurasia but extends into montane regions of parts of Africa and South America.

In the garden, viburnums offer something for every season, and work well as free-standing specimen shrubs or as part of the understorey in a woodland garden. They are undemanding to grow, thriving in most soils and tolerant of sun or shade. Some, such as Viburnum tinus, can be clipped to form evergreen hedges, while the British native species Viburnum opulus (guelder rose) and Viburnum lantana (wayfaring tree), work well in a mixed deciduous hedge.

Early-flowering varieties, such as Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’, provide colour and scent in winter. Later, species such as Viburnum plicatum, produce attractive corymbs of creamy white flowers. Many of these are also scented, such as Viburnum x carlcephalum, whose spherical flowerheads have a sweet, fruity scent. Flowers are succeeded by berries in a range of colours, for example, the metallic blue-black of Viburnum cylindricum, or the striking glossy red of Viburnum opulus. Several species provide attractive autumn foliage colour; a highlight of these is Viburnum plicatum, with its distinctive tiered growth.

In 1991, a body was discovered preserved in ice, in mountains close to the border of Austria and Italy. It proved to be the mummified remains of a Neolithic man who died around 5,300 years ago, and who became known as ‘Ötzi the Iceman’. The range of equipment and clothing found with Ötzi is diverse and exceptionally well-preserved, providing insights into life in the Copper Age that was impossible before Ötzi’s discovery. Among his equipment was a quiver containing arrows, their shafts made from Viburnum lantana.

Seeds of Viburnum opulus are frequently found at the sites of Mesolithic and Neolithic settlements, which may indicate the berries were used as food; a drink made from the berries is still produced in parts of Turkey. Whilst the raw berries of some species are edible, other species may need careful preparation before they become edible.

Further reading

Kollmann J and Grubb PJ 2002. Viburnum lantana L. and Viburnum opulus L. (V. lobatum Lam., Opulus vulgaris Borkh.). Journal of Ecology 90: 1044-1070.

Wierer U et al. 2018. The Iceman’s lithic toolkit: raw material, technology, typology and use. PLOS ONE 13: e0198292.

Ruth Calder