Following Martin Deasy’s series from last week, we have another guest writer and photographer today. Patrick Phillips is a Plantsman and Head Gardener in the UK. He trained at the Cambridge University Botanic Garden and the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, and shares this entry with us:
Every time I walk down the East Shrubbery, I am drawn to a mature Viburnum betulifolium which towers over me. At 4.5m (15 feet) high, it is one of the most eye-catching large shrubs in the garden. It is not its autumn colour that attracts me now (in fact, the leaves are still green) but instead the very heavy crop of juicy, bright red, spherical fruits which cover the plant. In fact, writing this in the late second week of October, the plant has been laden with fruit for at least a month and shows no sign of fading. Technically, the fruits are drupes (fleshy fruit containing a hard endocarp which contain a seed). Coupled with its floriferous display in mid-summer, this Viburnum stands out as a garden-worthy plant of great horticultural merit.
Viburnum betulifolium is a multi-stemmed deciduous, rounded shrub suitable for the back of a border where it can either stand out as an individual plant or as a backdrop to lower-growing perennials. As the epithet suggests, (“like the leaf of a Betula“) the species is commonly known as the birch-leaved viburnum. The leaves show similarity to Betula in both the leaf shape and toothed edges. There is, however, great variation in the variety of toothed edges; some leaves are fully toothed and some partial. It flowers are highly conspicuous. Covering the entire plant in June and July, this local plant flowered spectacularly this year, with tiny, white, slightly fragrant, 5-petalled flowers in a corymb inflorescence.
Native to western and central China, including Yunnan, Viburnum betulifolium was introduced to Western cultivation by British born Ernest Wilson to the Arnold Arboretum in 1901 through seed collection and was later described by the Russian botanist Alexander Theodorowicz Batalin. Despite its ease of cultivation and accolade (Award of Merit given in 1926), it’s surprisingly rare in cultivation and is a plant that should be more widely grown. It’s suited to both a sunny and partial shaded situation on well drained slightly acidic soil.
Some literature suggests Viburnum betulifolium is used for ethnobotanical uses. Ju et al., in the 2013 article Eating from the wild: diversity of wild edible plants used by Tibetans in Shangri-la region, Yunnan, China reported “fruit is eaten fresh and used to prepare local wine” by indigenous people.
Taxonomically, Viburnum is in the Adoxaceae and contains about 165 species which are predominantly distributed in the northern hemisphere, though there are a few species scattered throughout Asia and South America. About half are used in cultivation, though outside botanic gardens and significant plant collections, it is sadly rare to find more than a handful of commonly grown species.