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Four Vibrant Viburnums

Abbott's Mill Millstream Trailhead

Recently my daughter was kayaking the stream feeding into Coursey’s Pond and saw shrubs arching over the stream-sides with pom-poms of small, white, fragrant flowers that are a favorite of pollinators. These shrubs were the Southern Arrow-wood (Viburnum dentatum).


Viburnum dentatum with Tiger Swallotail
Viburnum dentatum

Since the Viburnums are in blooming season and members of the Honeysuckle family that we discussed last time, it seemed appropriate to elaborate on them now. There are at least at least four native species that grow on our Nature Preserve lands. Since these shrubs, as a group, are so attractive, adaptable, and easy to maintain, they, plus many non-native types are used extensively as lawn shrubbery.

Viburnum dentatum
Viburnum dentatum-spent flowers

The most common of our natives is Southern Arrow-wood. The new growth stems are perfectly straight and give the shrub its name. It is believed that the Indigenous people of the peninsula utilized these stems as arrow shafts. The leaves are somewhat heart shaped with blunt teeth around their edges giving it its species name, dentatum.

Viburnum dentatum - Jeanette Isaacs tract
Viburnum dentatum

In June the shrub is topped with white flower clusters that are visited by all types of bees, beetles, and butterflies. Many times, the perfume is noticed before the shrubs are seen. In late summer the flowers are followed by clusters of dark blue fruits that provide food for mammals and birds. Additionally, the leaves turn a nice burgundy color in the late fall.

Viburnum dentatum - autumn colors

They prefer to grow in wet soil in the swamps but can frequently be seen on the more upland forested areas as well. Look for them at Blair’s Pond Forest, Lee property, Abbott’s Mill Woods, Morton Woods, Lindale Woods, and the Jeanette Isaacs tract. Abundant everywhere especially along the boardwalk behind Abbott’s Mill and the Lindale tract loop trail. A second, more unusual species is Smooth Witherod or Possum Haw (Viburnum nudum).

Viburnum nudum-glossy leaves
Viburnum nudum-shiny leaf detail

This is a personal favorite of mine due to its larger, smooth, glossy, dark green leaves. The flower clusters are slightly smaller but equally fragrant. Just as in the previous species, it is severely browsed by deer. You should be able to spot its shiny, smooth-edged leaves along the boardwalk behind Abbott’s Mill and along the trail to the Swamp Observation deck on the J. Isaacs Tract. Unlike Arrow-wood, Possum Haw always prefers the soggier, more peaty soils in the dim swamps.

Maple-leaved Viburnum - leaf detail
Maple-leaved Viburnum - Lindale Tract

The Maple-leaved Viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium) is so named because of the leaf shape. Several of the non-native viburnums offered in the nursey trade have maple-shaped leaves, too. Our native one has leaves that are velvety and a medium green that look like Red Maple. They are dotted and softly hairy beneath. As in the case of its cousin, the new growth is upright, straight the first year, and I believe, the most preferred by deer. I have a large colony on our Tantrough Farm that never achieve a height greater than 12 inches due to the constant foraging of white-tailed deer. The normal height should be four to five feet.

Viburnum cassinoides
Viburnum cassinoides - Haven Lake
Viburnum cassinoides - in fruit

The final native Viburnum you may see grows pondside standing in very wet soil.

I believe it is Wild Raisin (Viburnum cassinoides?) which gets its common name from the dried fruit. The only place I have observed it, for certain, is around Haven Lake. Most likely it grows along the shores of our other millponds, as well. To me it looks a lot like

Viburnum nudum except that the leaves are not glossy. (See photos) Hopefully, I can get a more positive identification in the future.

There are several unique non-native Viburnums that you will see locally around parking areas, banks, residential lawns, and shopping malls. First is Viburnum sieboldii with the interesting lace-cap flower type. The unopened fertile flowers are pink in bud, and particularly lovely surrounded by a necklace of sterile, white, flat florets.

Viburnum sieboldii
Viburnum sieboldii - flower detail

Second is the leather-leaved Viburnum. Its natural growth pattern is much taller, often ten to twelve feet and more suitable for the back of the landscape. It is often seen at large commercial buildings and roadside underpasses, etc. The flowers are very fragrant and the leaves especially interesting looking like aged leather.

Viburnum - leather leaf

The Double-file Viburnum is beautiful, a large plant too big for small properties. The flower clusters are not fragrant but occur in double rows along the horizontal branches, hence the name. A large, well-grown specimen will rival the flowering dogwood in its beauty.

Viburnum-double file
Viburnum-double file - spent flowers

Queen Anne's Lace (Carrot Family) - similar form flowers

The Viburnums are almost finished with their blooming cycle, however the Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) is just now beginning. The plants are tall, leggy shrubs with compound leaves, growing in and around our swamps, ponds, and watercourses.

Elderberry in bud - Johnson's Branch

The large, white flowerheads occur in plate-like umbels and are held high. Once again, the pollinators have a feast. In late summer the dark purple fruits appear which are a powerhouse of vitamins and minerals, having much more vitamin C than either citrus or tomatoes. My Swiss-German ancestors loved the fruit which is easily harvested by simply clipping off the entire head into a pail. This was sometimes a source of spending money for rural children. Eight quarts can be picked in a manner of minutes.

Elderberry - plate-like flowerheads

The fresh berries have a somewhat musky smell that is a “put off” for most people. The berries can be easily processed into remarkable jelly or ice cream topping sauce. The secret is the addition of some acid, either lemon juice or some other tart, sour fruit like green apples. Author Euell Gibbons added the juice of wild sumac. (Now I ask you, who has that on hand?). So go with the lemon juice. Strangely enough, the musky taste is completely eliminated, and the finished product is delicious.

Elderberry flowers - beginning to open
Elderberry flower and Jelly

Since the fruit has no natural pectin, you will need to add “Sure-Jell”. The directions for making Elderberry jelly may still be on the “Sure-Jell” box. If not, check on-line.

The following is a recipe from the Mennonite Community at the Springs, Pa. Autumn Festival where we first experienced the delights of Elderberry topping on hand-cranked vanilla ice cream. Afterwards, you may have to do a couple of extra circuits of the 5K trail at Blair’s Pond.

Elderberry Syrup for Ice Cream:

  • Place elderberries in a kettle, fill kettle with water, enough to cover the berries, and bring to a boil. * Allow to boil for 15-20 minutes until the berries pale. Drain concoction through a strainer lined with cheesecloth, discarding the berries.

  • Heat 2 quarts of elderberry juice and 2 cups of sugar---may require more sugar, adding 1 tablespoon of margarine (or butter) to help keep foaming at a minimum.

  • Dissolve 1/2 cup of Clear Jell in small amount of water, pour this slowly into the heated juice, stirring steadily---add enough of this Jell/water mixture to make a thick juice. Allow to simmer for a couple of minutes, then add 2 c. uncooked elderberries and 1/2 tsp. cardamom (optional).

  • Simmer 2-3 minutes longer. Remove from heat and add 1 tsp. almond flavoring.

Note: This makes a fairly large amount---definitely more than you would need for a

small household. Our experience was that we should have used fewer elderberries

and more water in the juice-making step. * Just keep sampling, adding water, sugar,

and/or Clear Jell until you have something tasty.

Hopefully you can get outdoors and enjoy the great weather and make a memory.

Keep you eyes open and you might discover that some other living creature is enjoying a day fishing, too.

Heron - fishing on Johnson's Branch - resized

Happy Hiking!

Photos by the author except where noted.

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