The lowdown on Haws

Possumhaw Viburnum fruits

I added Possumhaw Viburnum (Viburnum nudum) to the shady inner edge of my floodplain about 15 years ago. What started out as a small shrub is now a small tree — about 12 feet tall and equally wide. The branches are a bit floppy; it’s not a shrub/tree to plant in formal areas. But it does a fine job of filling in a shady spot in my landscape.

This southeastern US native occurs naturally along streams, swamp edges, and the moist slopes of uplands, which is why I sited my specimen in a similar location. I planted this native to help fill in my once-sparse forest understory layer and to provide food for wildlife. It fulfills both these goals admirably and offers landscape value too. Summer leaves are glossy, reflecting light beneath the shade of a large red maple. Its fall color is a deep maroon that develops after most other deciduous trees have lost their leaves for the season. The flowers and fruits are also quite eye-catching.

Typical viburnum white flat-topped flower clusters glow softly in the growing shade of late spring, attracting myriad insect visitors. These busy pollinators ensure excellent fruit set. Individual fruits start out pinkish-red and mature to a dark blue. Here’s a close-up of some fruit clusters on my specimen:

Fruits start out pink and ripen to blue

You may notice that the above shot doesn’t show many blue fruits. I think that’s because the birds are eating them as soon as they are fully ripe. All the fruit-eating birds — from robins to cardinals to woodpeckers (oh yes, they love fruits) argue over who gets to devour the blue drupes. The common name — Possumhaw — refers to the fact that possums and raccoons also enjoy these fruits. Deer will browse the entire plant — mine is now tall enough that they can’t reach it all.

That common name — Possumhaw — is shared by another native shrub of our moist spots. It’s a completely different species — a deciduous holly, also commonly called Winterberry, for the fact that its bright red berries linger on the branches after the leaves fall. The fruits of this holly (Ilex decidua) are not as enthusiastically devoured as its same-named viburnum counterpart, but they do eventually get eaten as winter progresses.

Some folks call Winterberry Possumhaw Holly to distinguish it from Possumhaw Viburnum, but you’ll also find both shrubs/trees referred to simply as Possumhaw. The “possum” front end of the name seems likely to refer to one of the critters that likes to eat it, but I found myself wondering about the “haw” part.

It seemed likely that “haw” referred to the fruit, but that confused me because the hollies produce individual berry-like drupes that ripen from green to red, and the viburnum in question produces clusters of berry-like drupes that ripen from reddish-pink to blue. How can these both be haws?

A quick survey via my favorite search engine provided an answer. Apparently, the English colonists who settled this region weren’t interested in finer botanical distinctions. If an animal or plant reminded them of one from back home in England, they tended to call it by that old familiar name. That’s how our American Robin got its name, even though it’s not remotely kin (nor that physically similar) to the European Robin.

And it’s also why several bushes with red fruits — at any stage of their ripening process — got called Haws. You see, the European Hawthorn they grew up with produces red fruits they called Haws, so anything in the New World of about the same size and character with red fruits was called a Haw. As for the “Possum” part of Possumhaw, I imagine that the colonists either observed these creatures eating the fruits, or found them inside their stomachs when they prepared the possums for cooking.

All this is a long-winded way of telling you that common names of plants can be colorful, but to be sure you’re getting what you want, stick with their botanical names. If you’ve got a shady, somewhat moist spot for an attractive understory shrub/small tree that will feed wildlife, put Viburnum nudum on your list of options. It’s guaranteed to enhance your landscape and draw the attention of human, four-legged, and winged admirers.

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