Posts Tagged Possumhaw Viburnum

Native Shrubs for your Piedmont Landscape

Pinxterbloom Azalea

Pinxterbloom Azalea

With a little planning and minimal effort, one of the fastest ways to enhance your home landscape is through the addition of shrubs. Most folks in the southeastern Piedmont are in shrub ruts, thanks to the overuse of the same few bushes by landscapers of new subdivisions and commercial buildings. A few of those overused shrubs — like Wax Myrtle — are native plants, and so provide food and shelter for wildlife without the invasive tendencies that many non-natives exhibit. But boxwoods, grape hollies (Mahonias), and evergreen azaleas are not native. And the invasive tendencies of Mahonias in our native wetlands is an increasing concern to ecologists.

Golden autumn leaves of spicebush

Golden autumn leaves of spicebush

Today I encourage you to think beyond standardized Piedmont shrubbery. It’s time to consider adding some of our many gorgeous native shrubs to your home landscape. There’s a native shrub for any growing conditions you may have. Some can attain the size of small trees, such as a mature Bladdernut. But others remain just a few feet tall without the need for pruning, including some deciduous azalea and blueberry species.

Ilex verticillata berries ornament a still-green shrub.

Ilex verticillata berries ornament a still-green shrub.

The advice I offered in my previous post about tree planting applies equally to shrubs. Understand the site where you want to add your shrubs. Is it at the top of a sunny hill? Shaded by larger trees or buildings? In a low spot where rainwater collects? Clay soil? Sandy loam?

When you know the answers to those questions, if the area in question is not already a mulched bed, take the time to create a bed. Break up the soil, work in compost or other organic material to create a moist, loamy planting site. When you add the shrubs, be sure to gently stretch out any roots that might be winding around the interior of the pot. Be sure the level of the dirt in your bed matches where the dirt in the pot touched the base of the stem.

Hamamelis x intermedia 'Aurora' newly planted, watered, and mulched.

Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Aurora’ newly planted, watered, and mulched.


Water in your new addition, then mulch the bed with an inch or two of organic mulch — leaves, wood chips, bark — any of those will do nicely. As with new trees, your new shrubs will need a bit of pampering for their first year of growth. If your area goes into drought, water your newbies. Don’t worry about fertilizer. Native shrubs in a well-prepared planting site don’t need it and don’t really want it.

If you’ve read much of my blog, you’ve read about a number of native shrub options worthy of any Piedmont landscape. Here are a few for your consideration.

For Colorful Drama: Deciduous Azaleas

A spring-blooming hybrid deciduous azalea

A spring-blooming hybrid deciduous azalea

The southeastern US is home to spectacular native deciduous azaleas, and I’ve described all the ones I grow in this blog. If you search on deciduous azalea, you’ll find the relevant entries. The one here is probably mostly Rhododendron austrinum, but it was listed as a hybrid in the catalog. Talk about making an impact in the spring landscape! Not only are its numerous flowers impossible to miss, their fragrance is equally impressive, and utterly heavenly. The spring-blooming deciduous azaleas mostly do so before their leaves emerge, thereby increasing their visual impact. The summer bloomers, like Plumleaf Azalea, bloom after leaves appear, but the visual impact still stops visitors in their tracks.

Plumleaf azalea

Plumleaf azalea

Not all deciduous azaleas are fragrant, colors range from pure white to pale yellow to deep gold to rich pinks, oranges, and deep crimsons. Sizes and site requirements vary too. Truly, there is a native azalea ideally suited for almost any growing condition.

Because they drop their leaves in fall (after a spectacular fall leaf color display), deer mostly ignore these shrubs in the landscape. Every once in a while, one will bite off a flower bud in winter or grab a mouthful of summer leaves as it walks past, but deer don’t seem to want to devour this shrub, as they will with Virginia Sweetspire, for example. The deciduous azalea native to my area is Pinxterbloom Azalea (see top photo). I have a ten-foot-tall-and-wide specimen growing on the slope to my floodplain that has always been completely unprotected. The deer eat nearby plants, but ignore the giant Pinxterbloom Azalea.

In my yard, even small, newly planted deciduous azaleas usually begin blooming within the first three years, most sooner than that. Try them; you will not be disappointed.

For Four-Season Interest: Hydrangeas

Oak Leaf Hydrangea "Pewee"

Oakleaf Hydrangea “Pee Wee”

If you’ve got dry shade, Oakleaf Hydrangea is for you. Yes, you’ll need to water it for the first year during dry spells until it’s settled in, but that’s about it. Late spring clusters of white flowers eventually dry on the shrub, making lovely additions to dried flower arrangements. Leaves are bright green in summer and turn scarlet in autumn, remaining on the stems well into late fall. Winter bark is a deep rich brown that contrasts beautifully with snow.  In neighborhoods plagued by deer, the leaves of these shrubs will be eaten. In my yard, I find that if I spray the leaves with one of the repellant mixtures you can buy at any landscape supply store, the deer don’t touch them. In my yard, if I spray in early spring when the leaves are just emerging and again in autumn, I deter most of the nibbling. These are the times when the deer are hungriest in my area. The spray I apply smells horrible (garlic and pepper, I think), but when it dries, I can’t smell it — but the deer still can.

For Lingering Berries: Deciduous Hollies

Ilex decidua after leaf fall

Ilex decidua after leaf fall

That photo was taken in late winter. The bright red berries of our native deciduous hollies are the food of last resort with my local birds. Eventually, usually at the tail end of a cold winter, a flock of Cedar Waxwings will descend on these shrubs that I’ve added to my floodplain and strip them clean. I love these shrubs because the persistent crimson berries really pop in a winter landscape, especially because the branches drop their leaves well before that season. Ilex decidua and I. verticillata have been favorites of horticulturalists for a while. Many spectacular cultivars are available reaching various sizes. They’re native to floodplains, but happily tolerate higher ground in a well-prepared bed.

Note that all hollies are dioecious, meaning male and female flowers develop on separate plants. Females produce the lovely berries, as long as a male of the same species is close by. I usually group two or three females where I want them to be seen, and then tuck in a male plant nearby but more in the background — close enough to provide cross pollination, but far enough away to prevent its lack of berries from detracting from the visual impact of these shrubs in the winter landscape.

The List of Options is Long and Varied

This post is growing lengthy, so I’m going to close with a few more suggestions and links to where I’ve described these shrubs before.

October fast approaches. Now is the optimal time to plant native trees and shrubs. Almost every local nursery has a sale this time of year, and so do most public gardens, including the North Carolina Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill, NC. Members-only night is this Friday. If you live in this area, I hope I’ll see you there!

Itea virginica 'Henry's Garnet'

Itea virginica ‘Henry’s Garnet’

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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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