Today in the Garden of a Lifetime: Berries of the Wayfaring Tree

Viburnum lantana Aureum berries hand 081315 640 


Gold-leaved wayfaring tree is "on" all year: White flowers in May, gold foliage Spring to Fall, unusual evergreen "place saver" leaves that tip the branches all Winter—and, in high Summer, clusters of colorful berries..


And yet, for a plant that is so rewarding season after season, year by year, I hadn't yet stopped to appreciate the berries until now. How could that be? They are glossy and in shades of red, pink, translucent yellow, and blueberry! And while the gold leaves have muted by high Summer (or, in the case of ones lower down on the bush and in more shade, turned completely green), the shiny berries stand out amid the leaves' rugose texture and matte finish.   


Viburnum lantana Aureum berries 081315 640


Simply stated, my shrub of Viburnum lantana 'Aureum' is a soloist, and viburnums are usually less fruitful on their own. With another of the same species—preferably of a different cultivar—cross pollination can occur, with a heavier "berry bear" the result. In my ever-crowded garden, there needs to be a reason to plant more than one of anything, especially any shrub that can grow as large as any wayfarer. 'Aureum' can become eight feet high and wide, and it's among the smallest. The straight species can be fifteen by fifteen, while another cultivar, 'Mohican', can still be eight by ten.


Would it be worth it, then, to more than double the area needed for Viburnum lantana, so that two bushes would each have a marvelous show of berries instead of, as now, just the one bearing only scantily? And "scant" is a kindness: These two photographs show almost the entire crop!


But there's no room in this bed for anything more that's eight feet on a side. Handily, cross-pollinating viburnums don't need to be adjacent or, even, particularly close. One of the mysteries of cross-pollination by vector (bees in this case) is that, instead of visiting all the plants in a given patch willy nilly to "top up the tank" before heading back, the pollinators forage far and wide even on the same trip. With viburnums, if a compatible "crosser" is within about a hundred feet, bees are likely to visit both shrubs often enough during the same trip that sufficient viburnum pollination will be transferred.


I'm not aware that bees will avoid temptations along the way from one Viburnum lantana to the other. It's more likely that the shrub is favored (otherwise they wouldn't visit either one in the first place) and, thanks to the insects' ability to communicate the location of good foraging to others in the hive, a message of "Wow, two great bushes to visit out there!" is spread. Some bees will gather enough pollen by visiting just the one shrub before returning to the hive. And that's too bad for cross-pollination. But others may visit both in the same trip. Or, as likely, the unloading of pollen at the hive is a bit messy, with granules becoming stuck to the bees' bodies long enough that some become dislodged on the next trip that—whew!—just happens to include the other shrub.


If the shrubs aren't adjacent, it would seem a miracle that cross-pollination happens at all. But with many hundreds of individual viburnum flowers out at a time over a season of bloom lasting a couple of weeks, and hundreds of bees from a given hive making trips to gather pollen by visiting—who knows?—several scores of flowers each trip, there would be thousands of opportunities for successful cross-pollination each day. With that frequency, even a small chance of any one bee's cross-pollinatory success would become quite large in the aggregate.


As luck would have it, I do have room for another Viburnum lantana less than a hundred feet away from this 'Aurea': Around the corner from this public-view display bed is a large and somewhat haphazardly organized block of "back stage" beds that are just the place to stick something to see what it might do after a few years.


This Fall, I'll plant a Viburnum lantana 'Mohican' there, and see whether it and the 'Aurea' can draw bees between them. In a year or so, the berry display of the 'Aurea' could be as big as that of its flowers. Yes, if that much cross-pollinating occurs, the 'Mohican' will also be bearing heavily. No one but me (and, by photographs, you) will know.


Stay tuned.


Here's how perfect the nascent foliage of the gold-leaved wayfaring tree looks in late January.


Here's how to grow Viburnum lantana 'Aureum'—and a look at how exciting the glowing golden foliage and elegant white flowers are in May.

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