I’ve promised my wife for several years that I’ll prune the Chinese snowball (Viburnum macrocephalum, below) that towers over the windows of our small library, but …. I can’t offer any excuses, I just haven’t done it (along with many other things I haven’t followed through on). The proper time to prune it is immediately after it’s flowered, and now it’s in full bloom and quite magnificent. I’m reluctant to prune anything back so drastically, though it is likely this tough viburnum would recover without any bother and flower next year as if nothing happened.
My wife has nothing against large shrubs. We have many, but the snowball bush covers two of the three windows of the small room, and a monstrous gold tipped yew covers the third. Even on the sunniest day this south facing room is dark as a dungeon, so cutting the viburnum down a bit is quite reasonable. So, maybe. But, I’ve ignored many reasonable requests (and even demands) in the past, so there are no guarantees.
The snowball’s flowers are huge white balls that ripen from light green in mid April (above) to a creamy white through much of May. When the blooms are wet from rain the branches bend to block the nearby path, and if my wife had ventured this direction she would certainly be back quickly with her pruners to clear the way. Fortunately, she hasn’t been through much of the garden for a while, so keeping the paths open has been left to my good judgment. Imagine that!
A bit further to the back along the garden’s wooded southern border are two or three Maresi doublefile viburnums (Viburnum plicatum f. tomentosum ‘Maresi’, above), though they could very well be ‘Shasta’ since there is little difference except one is more spreading and less upright. For years after they were first planted the spot was in nearly full afternoon sun, but now a serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis) and smoketree (Cotinus coggygria) shade the viburnums so that their growth is much more open than it once was. In the heaviest shade the branches do not flower, but most branches still bloom and now are almost covered in flattened clusters of white flowers. I’m a little bit certain that a year ago ‘Maresi’ did not flower at all, but I’m probably mistaken since the neighboring plants are overgrown and my attention to detail isn’t what it used to be. People tell me all the time that their something-or-other didn’t flower this year, and usually I figure that they’re even less observant than I am.
I can verify that in shade the viburnums display little of the splendid autumn foliage color that occurs in more sun. In a proper environment ‘Maresi’ and ‘Shasta’ are big and beautiful, with white blooms for a month in the spring, dense foliage that is ideal for screening or for the back of a flowering border planting, and deep purple-red autumn foliage color.
The dark purple foliage of ‘Diabolo’ ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Diabolo’, above) is pleasing through spring and summer, and the flowers contrast delightfully through May. The branching form of ninebark is tall and arching, so the shrub consumes a good bit of ground unless it is regularly chopped back (which I never seem to get around to). I’ve heard that some more compact growing ninebarks have been introduced, and if a plant half the size is available this should be quite a treasure.
The Black Lace elderberry (Sambucus nigra ‘Black Lace’, above) is flowering now, and though the blooms are nice enough the deeply dissected foliage is its primary attraction. I have stuffed ‘Black Lace’ into a small space beneath a tall crapemyrtle, so it grows with an open branching habit, but I think that’s not far different from its form in full sun with plenty of space. This dark leafed elderberry benefits from regular pruning to keep a more compact form.
I’ve heard that northern gardeners use ‘Black Lace’ as a cold hardy substitute for Japanese maples, but I feel fortunate to garden in a climate where the elderberry is appreciated as a nicer than average shrub rather than a focal point.