Voted the GNPS 2011 Plant of the Year, mapleleaf viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium) is a shrub native to thickets and shaded woods from New Brunswick, Canada, west to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, south to Florida and west to Texas. It grows naturally in mesic, mixed woods on slopes, bluffs and ravines. It can be a loosely shaped shrub up to 6 feet tall that extends itself colonially, suckering to produce a colony of plants in the right conditions.
As the name suggests, the leaf of Viburnum acerifolium resembles that of a maple, particularly a red maple (Acer rubrum). The oppositely arranged leaves of the Viburnum is the same arrangement as the maple, making identification of this plant in the field just a bit more tricky when it is not in bloom. The leaves of Viburnum acerifolium are 2 to 5 inches long and wide, medium to dark green in color and often have 3 lobes. The edges are serrated and often have impressed veins.
Mapleleaf viburnum flowers in the spring. The blooms are on the ends of the twigs, off-white in 1 to 3 inch wide, flat-topped inflorescences composed of many small flowers (the flower structure is known as a cyme). Properly pollinated flowers turn into clusters of berries that turn from green to dark blue in the fall. The fruit is considered to be a drupe, a fleshy fruit with a single seed that has a stony seed coat or endocarp. The fruit is popular with birds and rarely persists through the winter. The mature fruit is also consumed by many species of mammals.
The low-growing and colonial habit of the mapleleaf viburnum provides both nesting and escape cover for birds and small mammals.
Viburnums are in the Caprifoliaceae or Honeysuckle family which includes many flowering shrubs.
Fall leaf color is spectacular on mapleleaf viburnum. The leaves can range from pale yellow to magenta on the same plant, but often the colors are shades of pink. Michael Dirr describes the colors as “shades of florescent pink and rose-red to grape-juice purple-red.” Leaf color starts as early as October and can last into November, depending on location. Once the leaves drop, leaf and bloom buds for next spring are quite visible on the bare twigs.
Mapleleaf viburnum is an excellent garden plant, particularly given its natural ability to thrive in part shade conditions and drier soils. This shrub would be well sited under a canopy of deciduous/mixed pine trees with perennials like native ferns and herbaceous flowering plants. It prefers acidic conditions. It also works well in a shrub border or as a foundation plant under tall windows. If pruning is required, it should be pruned after flowering since it flowers on old wood; pruning late in the year will result in fewer flowers the next spring.
Viburnum acerifolium is not often found in the nursery trade – the production of Viburnum trilobum (now Viburnum opulus L. var. americanum) seems more common – but it is a plant that is worthy of more attention both from nurseries and landscapers. It can be propagated from seed and cuttings. In the garden, branches that touch the ground can root; these rooted branches can then be separated from the parent and planted elsewhere or shared with friends.
In addition to supporting pollinator insects, mapleleaf viburnum is the larval host for the Spring Azure butterfly.
Prepared by Ellen Honeycutt, for the Georgia Native Plant Society.
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