May 14, 2012

Toronto lilacs are nice but...

Fragrant snowballs rock!

Closeup of white Fragrant Snowball Viburnum x carlcephalum flower in bloom by garden muses: a Toronto gardening blog
Detail of a Fragrant Snowball (Viburnum x carlcephalum) bloom

When we started planning our garden circa 1993, admittedly my wife and I knew very little in terms of plant selection. I suppose, like many other new homeowners, we were preoccupied by little distractions like a leaky roof and an ugly kitchen. The backyard was literally a junkpile! But we knew that we "needed" a plant that would give off a nice scent when we imagined ourselves relaxing on an imaginary deck some time in the distant feature. 

I did some research, pre-Google, and found a possible choice for a fragrant shrub that had to survive newbie gardeners and a semi-shady site. I remember going to a "choice" garden centre in Toronto and finding the most forlorn looking excuse of a shrub that had a hefty price tag (what did know?) As we all know, hope triumphs experience (especially in a garden centre) so I bit the bullet and bought a rather non-descript two gallon Fragrant Snowball (Viburnum x carlcephalum).

Over the years, it has bloomed with varying success, dependent more on whether the marauding squirrels left it alone (you will know my pain when you see anticipated blooms left on the ground, nipped off by these culprits for no other apparent reason than relieving their boredom.)

We, near Lake Ontario, had a very mild winter into 2012 with almost no persistent snow cover and fewer than average bone-crushing cold days  so perhaps this explains why my beloved Snowball is now having its best show ever. (Viburnum x carcephalum is a cross between V. carlesii and V. macrocephalum if you're wondering about its parental history.) The snowball-like cymes emerge with a pinkish tinge which turn white and smell fabulous (spicy/clovey to me.) 

My snowballs never set fruit which is an important ornamental feature for many in this genus (but not a big deal to me with x carlcephalum). The shrub's form is rather gangly but I've seen standards (single-trunked lollipops) blooming right now in Toronto (not a bad route to go if your into this sort of thing.)  Fall foliage is alright as well, running from a red-brown to wine to burgundy description. Maybe if you have 6' by 6' spot near a deck (they do get big) or patio, a fragrant viburnum (which x carlcephalum is one) would work.

I profiled another fragrant viburnum, Bodnant Viburnum (Viburnum x bodnantense "Dawn") last year in a similarly titled post called "You can keep your lilacs..." if you want to investigate further other sweet-smelling members in this genus. 
I wanted to show you, on the other hand, a non-fragrant (actually no smell at all) snowball viburnum also blooming its pretty head off in the back:

Clusters of white Popcorn doublefile Viburnum plicatum flowers by garden muses: a Toronto gardening blog
"Popcorn" doublefile viburnum (Viburnum plicatum "Popcorn")

Viburnum plicatum "Popcorn" is  known as a Japanese snowball and likely not as well-known as the other doublefile viburnums like Viburnum plicatum var. tomentosum "Shasta", "Mariesii" or "Summer Snowflake". As the cultivar name suggests, the white flowers are massed in layers but are sterile pom-poms instead of fertile lacecaps.  

I bought this as another two gallon container at the other end of the garden centre spectrum: Wal-Mart! I was stunned to see this in the sea of baby junipers, mugo pines and Emerald cedars. And the price was certainly agreeable! It's about 6 feet high now and a showoff now in May like the other plicatums. It does look like giant popcorn doesn't it?

Alas, invariably I get asked "I like those hydrangeas, but can you get them in blue?"

Next post will cover lacecap viburnums in bloom right now. Call me the viburnum enabler!


  1. One of neighbours has V.x carlcephalum in their front garden and lucky for the rest of us, the street is laced with its sweet fragrance. Good choice!

  2. An oldie but a goodie, not seen often in newer gardens unfortunately. We have dinner on the deck and we can smell that distinctive sweet scent wafting from 20 feet away. I feel I'm alienating lilac lovers out there!

  3. Anonymous14.5.12

    I have one of the fragrant snowballs in my back garden near the sliding doors to the kitchen. LOVE LOVE LOVE! It was loaded this year, and you'd go outside and the air was amazing. Alas, it's finished now! I think that it and the daphne odora (? not sure about the spelling) by my front door overlapped a little bit with the bloom time this year (which has never happened before). Truly a treat for the senses!

  4. Yes, daphne also has an amazing scent, fickle for me but successful elsewhere, lol...

  5. Paul:
    I wish I could admit to being a fan, and fragrance aside, I find its gangly habit and proclivity to chewed foliage to be a turn off! I much prefer Viburnum plicatum f. tomentosum var. 'Mariesii' - hands down a gorgeous plant year round. Its handsome, pest free deeply veined foliage, and the magnificent lacecap flowers that seem to float on its overall pagoda shaped habit make this a spectacular specimen piece. Of course, to each their own, and if 'Mariesii' could have the fragrance...... how would one improve upon perfection?

  6. Barry, I agree with you, V. x carlcephalum/ carlesii and other fragrant ones are my guilty pleasure for 2 weeks a year (could be worse, i.e. forsythia!) "Mariesii", "Shasta" and "Summer Snowflake" have much nice form with the horizontal layering. The first two do get big and wide, but if you got the space, definitely in my top five shrub list.

  7. Great ideas, like always! I am very much impressed with your work..

    Garden Centre Ayr