Leatherleaf Viburnums

Viburnums lack the colorful flowers of rhododendrons and roses but, especially in climate zone 6 and colder, are far more useful. But being thought of as merely functional—as filler or as informal screening—would be to damn with faint praise.


Thankfully, it's possible to look beyond the flowers of those other shrubs. Actually, it's a relief to do so: it frees you to appreciate the rest of the world of shrubbery on its own terms.


Such as viburnums. With your eyes and mind now more amiably receptive, an early realization about viburnums will likely be that, far from being merely big and stalwart—which they are—they are also detailed and diverse. Further, they are more interesting in each of their parts than most of those other shrubs—which, remember, rarely have more to brag about than those flowers. 


Below, one of the so-called leatherleaf viburnums. 


Viburnum rhytidophyllum Green Trump 112017 overall 640


Leather-leaf? That descriptor is only somewhat apt: apt-ish, say. The leaves are stiff, and with a prominent network of veins that, like the wrinkles of leather, are depressed below the top surface. The latin for such veins is rugose. Leaf veins of beach roses—Rosa rugosa—are composed similarly.


Viburnum rhytidophyllum Green Trump 112017 leaf fingers 640


But leatherleaf is misleading in that the shrub's leaves are in no way as durable as leather. Only in Zone 7 and warmer might they remain in place until spring. In Zones 6 and 5, most are shed in the fall and early winter, but stragglers can hang on through the roughest weather despite becoming torn and discolored. By early spring, they're all gone. Leatherleaf viburnums, then, are evergreen only in mild climates; otherwise, they are reluctantly deciduous.


Another common name—wrinkly viburnum—avoids the miss-inference that a leathery leaf is as tough as animal hide. And wrinkly is more accurate twice over. First, remember that the veins of leatherleaf foliage recall the wrinkles of leather. There aren't any veins in leather: animal veins are in the flesh, not the the hide, so are not retained during the processing of hide into leather.


Second, wrinkly is also what the species' latin name means. The greek word for wrinkle is rhytis, and the greek for leaf is phyllum. Derive both into latin, and you have rhytido-phyllum : wrinkly leaf.


That said, I prefer to call these viburnums "leatherleafs," because the name is still evocative despite being doubly incorrect. The greek-to-latin-to-english accuracy of naming any shrub "wrinkly" is outweighed by the diminished curb appeal that such accuracy causes.


So then: the sandpapery buds of leatherleafs are modestly showy, as well as a bit mysterious. 


Viburnum rhytidophyllum Green Trump 112017 bud cluster fingers 640


They are quite stiff, as well as brown, and won't strike the casual viewer as even being alive. 


Viburnum rhytidophyllum Green Trump 112017 bud cluster fingers closer 640


But viable they are, at least so far. In zone 6 and colder, both these floral and the (much smaller and less complex) vegetative buds of Viburnum rhytidophyllum may become damaged or killed during the winter. I'll follow mine through the coming chilly months, and if any don't make it, I'll provide a picture of those actual dead buds for comparison. In April or (more likely) May, those that do make it will open up to fragrant white blooms.


The Viburnum genus is a big tent, with about one hundred and fifty species, plus scores of hybrids. They range from small-to-medium evergreen shrubs (none hardy, alas, in Zone 6), to eight-to-fifteen-foot shrubs & twenty-to-thirty-foot deciduous trees that are all typically hardy in Zone 6 and, often, much colder.


There isn't just a single leatherleaf, either. The pictures above are of the rhytidophyllum culitvar I'm growing, Green Trump. There are a half dozen or so others, and more will surely come to market. Plus, there are a number of hybrids of Viburnum rhytidophyllum with V. lantana, which are known as V. x rhytidophylloides


Below, a shot of a parking-lot planting I recently saw in Connecticut, showing the scale of leatherleaf viburnums. Even when pruned back with an eye strictly to size control, they are still bulky. Green Trump is supposedly a bit more compact than these, which are most likely a rhytidophylloides cultivar named Allegheny.


Viburnum x rhytidophylloides TBD Whole Foods Fairfield CT 111717 640


Yet another hybrid leatherleaf has emerged, via a cross of Viburnum rhytidophyllum with V. utile first done in 1955 at the Prague Municipal Garden. Viburnum x pragense can become as large as the other "leathers" but, unless pruned, remains far more open. Its foliage is much smaller—not in itself a negative—and it's the only leather that is reliably evergreen in Zone 6.


I'll revisit Viburnum rhytidophyllum 'Green Trump' in the spring, plus provide the full How To Grow It profile.



Here's another viburnum I grow, Viburnum lantana 'Aureum'. Its foliage glows gold spring into summer, while elegant white flowers emerge in May.


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