The color is white

Viburnum macrocephalum.


By Kit Flynn

My garden has suddenly turned white. For those of you who insist that white is not a color, that it’s merely an absence of color, I can only insist that you look around at the various viburnums, dogwoods and spireas that are profusely in bloom. “White” is this gardener’s word for the week.

I think viburnums are very special – and every garden needs at least one. Covering thirty-six pages in Michael Dirr’s Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, the breadth of this genus is truly awesome (sometimes there is a good use for this overused word). Suffice it to say, there really is a viburnum for everyone. However, viburnums make their statement in the spring so by mid-summer, everyone has forgotten about them, something I contend is truly a shame.

They are special because they bloom towards the beginning of spring, right after the redbuds and the various fruit trees but before the roses and azaleas. In my garden I have four varieties: V. opulus ‘Sterile’, V. macrocephalum, V. burkwoodii, and V. plicatum f. tomentosum ‘Shasta’.

Snowball viburnums are wonderful in the early spring but you must be careful to choose one of the two sterile ones, V. macrocephalum, the Chinese Snowball, or V. opulus ‘Sterile’, the European snowball, also referred to as the Eastern Snowball. Avoid at all costs the Japanese Snowball, V. plicatum, as it is considered quite invasive.

The next thing you must consider is size as V. macrocephalum can grow to 25 feet in height whereas V. opulus reaches an almost dainty 12 feet in comparison. Both are wonderful and you won’t go wrong with either one – provided you have the room. There is also a fragrant snowball viburnum, V. caricephalum that blooms in late spring. However, I prefer the ones that bloom in the early spring before the competition appears.

V. burkwoodii is the first to bloom in my garden, one that I mentioned in my column summarizing the treats in March. Perfuming the garden for approximately two weeks, it is always missed when the blooms disappear. If you settle for this variety, which remains a large shrub size, be aware that the bloom time is short but the flowers arrive at the first glimpse of spring, letting you know that slowly the garden is awakening.

V. plicatum f. tomentosum ‘Shasta’ is well known for its flowers that appear in two rows down each limb. Both the doublefile and snowball viburnums last far longer than V. burkwoodii, and both bloom at the same time with our native dogwoods, Cornus florida. This is the white time of spring, one I have long savored.

Paeonia ostii with Viburnum opulus ‘Sterile’ in the background.

About ten years ago, I bought a tree peony from Nancy Goodwin, owner of Montrose. For two years it just sat, throwing out an occasional early spring bloom – and then it decided that it now belonged to a nice family by growing tall while throwing out multiple white flowers in appreciation. While some peonies, Alaska’s only horticultural export, can grow well here in the Triangle, almost all tree peonies dislike our long, hot summers. The exception is this deer resistant species peony, Paeonia ostii, the tree peony that came from Montrose.

The flower is large – about seven inches in diameter while the “tree” ordinarily reaches a height somewhere between 3-5 feet. Naturally, I, who had basically no idea what a tree peony did, planted it too close to a curly leaf privet, Ligustrum japonicum ‘Recurvifolium’, a ligustrum that bears no resemblance to that privet that quickly grows out of control. While L. ‘Recurvifolium’ grows slowly and is not a space hog, there is no question that I misplanted P. ostii as the photo clearly demonstrates. This is where that I fully recognize that garden perfection is probably beyond my reach.

Also deer resistant, Weigela is putting forth its white flowers just in time to team up with the tree peony and the viburnums. This shrub maintains a neat, tidy shape about three feet high. Prune (if you must) immediately after flowering as it forms its buds on old wood.

The last white inhabitant in my garden is our native dogwood, Cornus florida. I live in an old, established area that has lots of dogwoods – and it’s impossible not to appreciate our native tree. However, the sad fact is this: Our native dogwood has suffered from the spread of dogwood anthracnose so many gardeners are turning to the Asian Cornus kousa instead. C. kousa flowers towards the end of April, after it has leafed out but it does have the virtue of being more resistant to anthracnose.

The good news is that hybridizers are working to develop C. florida cultivars that are more resistant to anthracnose. If you want to plant a native dogwood, please do your research first. Rutgers University has developed several cultivars that are holding up well.

My gardening suggestion this week is to develop some white in your landscape. There are many choices out there. I can only add that I savor my “think white” period in the garden.

It has come to my attention through Nextdoor that the Briar Chapel board has decided to remove its native pollinator bed, due to a complaint made by a couple who do not use the park. This decision is obviously shortsighted and the board should have opened a discussion about its future. It’s been remarked that the bed does require mulch. Surely with some foresight, town mulch could have been added. Perhaps representatives from the NC Botanical Garden could step in to educate this board as to the practicalities of maintaining a native pollinator bed.

After being an active member of the Durham County Extension Master Gardeners for 13 years, Kit Flynn now holds emeritus status. For five years she was the gardening correspondent for “Senior Correspondent” and shared “The Absentee Gardener” column with fellow Master Gardener Lise Jenkins. She has given numerous presentations on various gardening topics to Triangle organizations and can be reached at

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