Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
May, 2010
Regional Report

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The Doublefile Viburnum flower cluster is strikingly similar to that of the Lacecap Hydrangea. Both have fertile and sterile flowers.

The Whites of Spring

Perhaps winter's snowfalls deeply fed shrubs and trees, pushing them into lush spring flowering. I'm dazzled and dumbfounded by so many woodies simultaneously covered in white blossoms. White-flowering dogwood, arching white sprays of spirea, mounds of white azaleas, rose-like flowers hugging crab apple branches, snowy white clusters on viburnums.

This brings me to an Identity Crisis- especially among dogwoods and viburnums (and hydrangeas). Seen from afar (like when driving), a small flowering or Pagoda dogwood and a doublefile Viburnum (Viburnum plicatum var. tomentosum) look similar. Both have strongly defined horizontal branches spaced so as to look tiered. Those branches are cloaked in white flowers.

Yes, an astute eye notices the mature dogwood's scale-like bark and trunk, sparser branching, and delicate leaves. The Doublefile IS more shrublike, yet can be pruned to be a tree-like 10 feet or be low and layered. Its green, deeply veined, elliptical, serrated leaves are dark counterpoint to the luminescent flowers.

Viburnum? Hydrangea?
Up close there's a different complication. The beautiful, lacecap Doublefile flower cluster resembles all too well the lovely lacecap hydrangea's clusters. Both have nondescript fertile flowers surrounded by showy sterile flowers. Other lacecap viburnums are Nannyberry (V. lentago), Mapleleaf (V.
), hobblebush (V. alnifolium). V. trilobum. V. dentatum, V. dilatatum, V. nudum, etc.

Lacecap hydrangeas are Big Leaf Hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla var. normalis). There seem to be lovely, new lacecap hydrangea cultivars- tall, short, compact, large, variegated - available every spring. Not all Big Leaf Hydrangeas are lacecaps though. Most are not; they are Hydrangea macrophylla (not var. normalis).

Which brings us to snowballs - another source of confusion. Snowball flower clusters are sterile and very showy. Some Big Leaf Hydrangeas (H. macrophylla), panicle or tree hydrangea (H. paniculata), smooth hydrangea (H. arborescens), and oak leaf hydrangea (H. quercifolia) have white snowball flower clusters. These are also known as Hortensias, lollypops and mopheads.

So do several viburnums (of which there are 150 species). There's Chinese Snowball Viburnum (Viburnum macrocephalum), Japanese snowball (V. plicatum), Burkwood Viburnum (V. burkwoodii) and Eastern Snowball (V. opulus).
When I moved to the Philadelphia area several decades ago in a cool, late April, I remember raving about the gorgeous white hydrangeas. A person or two looked quizzically, shook their heads. Wrong. Hydrangeas bloom in summer. I was unknowingly admiring early-flowering viburnums!

Hydrangeas are decorative and quick to notice. We enjoy their three or four months of colorful bloom, then bring flower heads indoors for dried arrangements. Several new cultivars have flowers that change color as they mature- 'Pinky Winky' from white to pink, 'Lady In Red' from white blushed with pink to burgundy.

Viburnums hold their own as strong, ornamental woodland shrubs- some evergreen, some deciduous, many tolerating difficult shade. They transition into rich fall color, from gold to red to burgundy. Native viburnums produce nutritious berries for songbirds. Their foliage is food for moth and butterfly larvae. Their branches shelter and protect wildlife.

Including both in our landscapes provides flowers we enjoy from early May into late autumn. As bonus, the many North American viburnums benefit critters who depend on native plants to survive.

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