Plant Profile: The Versatile Viburnums

In addition to our interest in native trees, shrubs, wildflowers and grasses, one of the goals of the Arboretum is to grow plants which, while not native, are adapted to the rigors of the central Kansas climate. We are especially interested in displaying plants that are not widely grown in the area, but that show excellent hardiness and landscape potential.

The viburnums are a perfect example.  While not as widely known as forsythia and lilac, these shrubs deserve much more use in our landscapes. Not only do they offer year-around show of ornamental attributes, such as abundant floral displays, fragrance, outstanding fruiting characteristics, and fall color, they are also hardy and can serve a number of important uses in the landscape.

The Arboretum collection currently features a number of different viburnums, each displaying unique characteristics and qualities.  Most of the viburnums can be seen along the east border of the Arboretum, just south of the parking lot. A planting on the north bank of the Amphitheater features several additional kinds along with some newer varieties in the Pinetum.

Fragrant snowball viburnum – Viburnum x carlcephalum https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Viburnum_%C3%97_carlcephalum

The three most fragrant viburnums in the Arboretum’s collection are the Koreanspice Viburnum (Viburnum carlesii), fragrant viburnum (V. x carlcephalum), and Judd viburnum (V. x juddii). These three are somewhat similar in appearance because the latter two are hybrids involving a cross between the Koreanspice and another viburnum. They are medium size shrubs (6-10 feet tall). However, our collection also includes a dwarf form of the Koreanspice. All produce clusters of fragrant white flowers in April into May followed by inconspicuous black fruits.

Another fragrant type in the Arboretum is Burkwood Viburnum (Viburnum x burkwoodii). This semi-evergreen grows 8-10 feet fall and produces a white snowball-like flower cluster in April. The fragrance in somewhat sharper, almost spicy.

Like the burkwood viburnum, Willowwood viburnum (Viburnum x rhytidophylloides ‘Willowwood’) is semi-evergreen, retaining its furrowed, leathery leaves throughout much of the winter. This 7-10 foot shrub blooms in April and often to a lesser extent again in October. The blue-black fruits are attractive and can be quite abundant. Another form that is really attractive is ‘Alleghany’ which has tough, leathery leaves, attractive white flowers and abundant bunches of reddish-purple fruit.

Alleghany Viburnum. Photo by Emily Weaver

The Wayfaringtree viburnum (Viburnum lantana) grows as a large shrub or small tree (12-15 feet). While not fragrant to any degree, it produces an outstanding floral display in May, followed by red-black fruit in late summer that persists into fall. Fall color is often red, although it is not consistent.

Another large shrub is the Wentworth cultivar of the American cranberrybush (Viburnum trilobum ‘Wentworth’). The Wentworth viburnum was selected for its large, edible fruits, which progress in color from yellow to red to bright red and persist throughout winter. Birds seek out the fruits from fall through winter.  I have often thought that this shrub was at is best on bright winter days with the fruit highlighted against a snowy background. It is also attractive in May with its show of white, flat-topped flower clusters. A dwarf form of the American cranberrybush is found on the north bank of the Amphitheater.

Tucked up under the northeast corner of the Visitor Center is a viburnum that is very attractive. The Doublefile viburnum (Viburnum plicatum forma tomentosa ‘Shasta’) is stunning in bloom as the flowers are held horizontally above the branches.  It has insignificant fruit, but the spring flower show makes up for it.

Doublefile viburnum

The last two species in the Arboretum collection are the Blackhaw (Viburnum prunifolium) and southern or rusty blackhaw (V. rufidulum). These two species are native to Kansas and distinct from each other. Blackhaw viburnum is a large shrub or small tree that has smaller leaves and brighter fall color with oranges, yellows and reds. The dense flower clusters develop into purplish-black fruit that the birds love.

Rusty blackhaw is not widely available in the nursery trade at this time, but extremely adaptable and hardy. The glossy dark green leaves turn a nice burgundy-purple in the fall. Large, white, flat-topped clusters of flowers appear in early spring and later produce bunches of fruit that change from red to purple through the fall.  Again, many types of birds cherish the nutritious fruit.  These two native viburnums are my personal favorite, because they are the most adapted to our Kansas landscapes and have so many wonderful qualities.

Viburnum prunifolium. Photo by Janelle Flory Schrock

Viburnum rufidulum fruit. Photo by Emily Weaver

Any way you look at them, the viburnums are a versatile and highly ornamental group of plants that deserve a greater use in the landscape. We will continue to integrate new species and varieties into our plantings as development of the Arboretum progresses.

Medicine Gardening

Plants are the pharmacy of the world, providing us with healing elixirs for all manner of ailments. We often associate medicinal plants with the tropics, but North American prairie natives have much to offer as well! Indigenous North American people made use of prairie plants for medicinal and spiritual purposes. Most modern day medicines are now synthesized in labs due to cost and the risk of overharvesting wild populations. However, creating a medicine garden in your landscape can still be a rewarding pursuit!

Monarda fistulosa flower, photographed by Brad Guhr

 

What is a Medicine Garden?

A medicine garden is a collection of medicinally useful plants, usually organized in an aesthetically pleasing way. Instead of tromping across miles of prairie to find a certain plant, tend that species right at home instead. Medicine gardens can include herbaceous perennials, reseeding annuals, cooking herbs, and shrubs. This no new trend: many cultures throughout the world have tended medicine gardens far back into ancient times. Though plants are the basis of many healing compounds, never use a plant for medicinal purposes without checking first with your physician. Ancient peoples may have relied on herbal potions for healing, but the practice is fraught with pseudoscience and was often more harmful than helpful. Your medicine garden can be of practical use, or purely aesthetic, depending on your needs.

But with so many prairie plants, where do you start? Here are few staples to include that will bring cultural and historical significance to your garden.

Monarda fistulosa

Monarda, commonly called bee balm, is a well known medicinal plant. Not only is it beautiful and attractive to pollinators, but it is also low maintenance and drought tolerant. It keeps a clumping, upright habit and produces long lasting lavender tinted blooms early to mid summer. Native people of the Great Plains used this plant to treat all manner of ailments including colds, fevers, stomach pains and acne. You can use the fragrant leaves, with the aroma of Earl Grey tea, as dried potpourri to perfume clothing or linens. At the Arboretum, we have enjoyed using the leaves as a refreshing iced tea.

Monarda blooms profusely in this photo from Kansas Wildflowers and Grasses taken in Riley County, KS.

 

Echinacea angustifolia

Probably one of the best known medicinal plants in North America, purple coneflower is a must-have for any medicinal garden. According to Medicinal Wild Plants of the Prairie, “Echinacea angustifolia was the most widely used medicinal plant of the Plains Indians”(Kindscher). It grows to be 2 ft tall with thin stems topped by light purple flowers. Native people and eventually the invading European settlers used the crushed root to treat snake bites and bee stings, and other infected skin wounds. Modern science has proven coneflower power against the growth of infectious bacterias. You can chew the seeds briefly to numb the mouth and gums, creating a tingling sensation. Echinacea tinctures, teas and creams are quite popular and commercially available. This means you can get your echinacea fix without digging up your gorgeous garden!

Purple coneflower is an iconic prairie flower, beloved by pollinators and humans alike.

Allium canadense

Prairie onions offer delicate blooms and strappy foliage, a great addition to the front border of any garden. The bulb of wild onions was traditionally used to treat coughs (if drunk in a tea) and insects stings (when applied topically). Plains people used an infusion of the bulb to treat ear infections. Interestingly, combined with Monarda it was used to cool the skin around swellings or sores (Kindscher, Medicinal Wild Plants of the Prairie 1992). Several of toxic bulb plants look similar to alliums, so take caution when including these in your medicine garden.

There are too many garden-worthy botanicals to mention here, but hopefully I have piqued your curiosity. For more detailed information about the relationships between these plants and specific tribes and nations of indigenous people, come to our gift shop and grab a copy of Kelly Kindscher’s fascinating and well researched Edible Wild Plants of the Prairie or Medicinal Wild Plants of the Prairie. Our fall plant sale is just around the corner and expert staff will be there to help you pick out plants that will thrive in your landscape for years to come.

Can A Shade Garden Be Created In Kansas?

“I have shade in my yard, what can I grow?” We get this question every year at our FloraKansas Plant Festivals and I admit it is a challenge to come up with plants that will thrive in shade.  The difficulty with trying to grow shade plants in our area in not that we have shade, it’s that we have shade in an area that once grew sun loving deep rooted prairie plants.  Trees have been added to our landscapes out of necessity and the prairie has been pushed out due to lack of adequate sunlight.  The inconsistent rainfall and root competition of the trees are a real challenge to shade-loving perennials, shrubs and understory trees.

So what can we do to create a shade garden?

Start small

Choose drought tolerant shade loving plants. These new additions to your shade garden should be smaller and don’t require digging a deep hole and disturbing tree roots to get them in the ground.  Establish an area that can easily be managed and maintained the first couple of years.  Keep in mind that root competition and irregular rainfall will require consistent moisture from you the first year until the new plants can weave their roots through the tree roots and live in harmony together.

Be patient

This is not a quick fix. The roots of your shade plants develop slowly so you need to watch and wait to see what these plants need.  The first two years are vital to the success of your shade garden endeavor. You will need to water them regularly to encourage growth.  Work with the plants to create an environment in which they will thrive.  Your patience will be rewarded with new blooms several years into the future, but you have to start now to see this happen.

Forms and textures are important

Let face it, there are not as many showy flowering plants for the shade compared to the vast array of sun loving prairie plants.  So, we need to include plants with interesting forms and foliage.  A good example of this are the arching stems of Solomon’s seal. A group of these growing happily together are very striking. Incorporate plants that flower but don’t forget the architecture that give additional visual interest.  Great shade gardens have a balance of flowers and foliage.

Arching stems of Solomon’s Seal

Don’t fertilize

Leave the leaves as protection and organic matter.  As the leaves decompose, they will supply nutrients to the fledgling plants. The natural processes that make a woodland work effortlessly need to be replicated as closely as possible.  Woodland plant communities rely on the nutrients from the canopy and twigs that are slowly broken down and released back to the soil.  Too much fertilizer creates all kinds of problems, but the most obvious is too much growth with not enough sustainable roots.

CLICK HERE: For a list of shade loving perennials and shrubs.

Trees in Kansas are a blessing, not a curse.  We enjoy the shade, but often struggle to find the right plants for that barren shady spot under the trees.  Some properly chosen plants and some patience along with timely watering will make your woodland garden more natural and resilient over time.  The roots of the trees and roots of the shade plants co-mingle in our soil, sunlight and climate.  Even the most tranquil forest settings we have seen have complex processes and interactions taking place.  So, be patient and you will be rewarded with happy plants for years to come.