Viburnums are a genus of shrubs in the Honeysuckle family (Adoxaceae) whose opposite rather than alternate leaves is one of their most identifying features. This characteristic is seen in all members of the Honeysuckle family. We have two shrubs that are native to the Pine Barrens, the Arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum) and the Wild Raisin or Witherod (also called Possomhaw in the south) (Viburnum nudum). They are showy and have a long season, from their flowers in the spring to their berries in the late summer to their brightly colored leaves in the fall.
The Arrowwood is a small to medium-size shrub found in the moister areas of the pines. It bears heart-shaped dark green leaves with prominently toothed edges and distinctive veins. The leaves measure from 2” to 5” in length and 1” to 3” in width. Its showy, creamy white, flat-topped clusters of non-fragrant flowers measure from 3” to 4” across. The flower blooms from May through June. Berries are produced from July to August and change from yellow to blue to purplish black. Although these berries are incredibly sour, they can be used in jams, jellies and pies – but use lots of sugar. The berries are mainly eaten by birds, which love them. In the fall, the Arrowwood leaves turn a deep red before finally falling.
Many people plant them as ornamentals because they’re attractive and have a long season. Their name was derived from their past use by Native Americans. The plant’s straight shoots were hardened into strong woody stalks that were used as arrow shafts.
This brings me to my favorite Viburnum, the Wild Raisin. This shrub grows much taller than the Arrowwood. I usually see it along the piney rivers as I paddle my kayak. It likes to be near water but not in it. Its opposite leaves are much larger and not as dark a green. They are also quite smooth and shiny-surfaced. The margins of the leaf are not toothed and are wavy. It follows pretty much the same schedule as the Arrowwood, but its blooms are somewhat larger.
The Wild Raisin berries are the most amazing feature. They are oblong and somewhat flattened (raisin-like) and change from green to pink to purple. All of these colors can be in the same cluster during the fruiting stage and are more eye-catching than the blossoms. The berries are also somewhat sweet and can actually be eaten raw, at least as a survival food. A variety of wildlife likes to supplement its diet with the berries. In the fall, the Wild Raisin leaves turn a deep red and continue to be eye-catching until the winter temperatures drop consistently below freezing. They are valuable as an ornamental shrub because deer don’t seem to eat the foliage.
Another Viburnum that readers may have heard of is the Highbush Cranberry (Viburnum trilobum). Although this shrub is not native to the pines (its range is from Minnesota to Maine), it can survive here if transplanted. It’s not really a cranberry because it’s not in the Heath family. It has a three-parted leaf similar to a red maple leaf and produces a hydrangea-like flower head. Its fruit actually looks and tastes like our cranberries. Perhaps it will be a crop of the future?