Shrubs will add beauty, birds to your landscape

By Jeanne Henderson, Interpretive Naturalist


Have you been thinking about spring planting? Now is the time to consider adding new species to your landscape, especially if you want to attract birds. I recommend viburnum shrubs for their beautiful flowers, branch structure and abundant fruits.

Six viburnum species occur in Michigan. They all have opposite branches and simple leaves, although the leaf shapes vary. They grow into mature medium to tall shrubs or small trees. Viburnums bloom in May and June and have similar flower structures: an umbrella-shaped cluster of blossoms called an umbel, with each flower comprised of five sepals, five petals, five stamens and one to three pistils. Each fruit contains one hard seed inside. Here are two common species.

Highbush cranberry (Viburnum trilobum) lives in wooded swamps and floodplains, with numerous arching stems that grow taller in light shade rather than full sunlight. Named for its bright-red berries, it is unrelated to the bog cranberry we eat with turkey dinner. In the fall, these berries smell like a wet dog when crushed in your hand. Wildlife pass by the bitter hanging fruit clusters during winter, but after fermenting somewhat, the berries are devoured by cedar waxwings and American robins in early spring. Its scientific name describes the three-lobed leaves that resemble maple leaves, but with a smooth margin. Highbush cranberry flowers differ from maple-leaved viburnum in that a ring of blooms with larger petals surrounds the center flowers. These sterile flowers have no pistils or stamens, yet they attract insects that move toward the center fertile flowers containing pollen and nectar.

Native Americans reportedly used the straight stems of arrowwood viburnum (Viburnum dentatum) for arrow shafts. Feel the firm veins and coarse teeth on the margin of the bright-green oval-shaped leaves. At 3 meters tall and wide, this shrub forms a rounded shape on woodland edges and makes a nice landscape specimen. When the creamy-white flowers appear all over the branches, they attract many bees and butterflies. Forked branches offer sturdy locations for songbirds to build nests.

Picking Natives

Choose native viburnums to replace invasive exotic shrubs like buckthorn, but follow an invasive management plan to continue control, or invasives may return to crowd out your new plants.

Maple-leaved viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium) grows to 2 meters tall, living in the understory of oak-hickory or beech-maple forests. The leaves resemble maple trees with three lobes, coarsely toothed edges and palmate veins, measuring 2 to 4 inches long and wide. Its creamy white flowers appear on the upright branch tips, pollinated by insects. The fruits ripen to purplish-black in September. Winter buds have four overlapping scales.

Nannyberry (Viburnum lentago) is considered a small tree growing to 8 meters high in wet meadows and lake margins. Winter buds are larger than the other species at 2 centimeters long and covered with only two scales. Rounded flower clusters spread 3 to 5 inches across. Nannyberry’s bluish-black fruits are sweet and edible by humans, as well as birds.

Wild-raisin or withe-rod (Viburnum cassinoides) is stiff and erect up to 4 meters tall. Its oval to elliptical leaves have a slightly wavy margin with no teeth. The name withe-rod refers to the tough flexible twigs (withes) shaped like rods. Look for stalked narrow lateral buds and the terminal flower bud, which resembles an onion shape. It lives in poorly drained wetlands and is the latest to bloom of all the viburnums.

Downy arrowwood (Viburnum rafinesquianum) differs from arrow-wood by the tiny white hairs on the leaves’ undersides. It likes drier sandy soils in oak forests.