Ruby waxed

SEEING RED: The waxy berries of Viburnum opulus.

SEEING RED: The waxy berries of Viburnum opulus.

  • Viburnum opulus can be downright sulky but it puts on a first-rate show, writes, David Overend.
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This is Viburnum opulus, seen occasionally in gardens where it more often than not forms part of a mixed hedge. Occasionally, if may be grown as a specimen shrub but it can be unreliable, even downright sulky, so there are definitely grounds for giving it a wide berth if you want something consistently floriferous.

Once it was a lot more common, grown for beautiful, pompom-like white flowers and waxy, red berries that look a bit like redcurrants. The plant’s leaves resemble those of a maple, but there the similarity ends. That’s one of the reasons many people are puzzled by the plant – they can’t identify it.

And yet it’s a very accommodating shrub; it doesn’t mind even moist, moderately alkaline soils. In fact, it will tolerate so many soil types that at one time it was a bit of a fallback for sites where a lot of shrubs fail to flourish. Kind of a bit-part actor but never the star.

Yet give it a well-cultivated soil rich in humus, and it will put on a first-rate show before it finally sheds its leaves and becomes nothing more than a pile of brown twigs.

The acidic fruit is edible in small quantities, but it can be used to make jelly. It is, however, mildly toxic – so perhaps that’s why birds leave it alone unless there is absolutely nothing else on the dining table.

Viburnum opulus has a multitude of names, including Water Elder, European Cranberrybush, Cramp Bark (for its medicinal qualities), Snowball Tree and Guelder Rose. The latter appears to have originated because a popular cultivar came from the Dutch province of Gelderland.

It can get a bit twiggy, and if left unpruned will spread to become a healthy 10ft tall and equally as wide, and it can throw out more growth via lengthy underground roots, so it pays to keep it in shape by cutting it back after it has flowered. Then, of course, you forfeit the berries for that year – although the birds probably won’t mind.

Any unwanted bits springing up from the soil should be pulled or dug up before they join to make an impenetrable mass of woody growth.

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