Sunday, May 20, 2007


What’s blooming in the area: Purple and white locusts, tamarix, snowball, privet, yucca, Austrian copper, Persian yellow, and pink shrub roses, Apache plume, skunkbush, golden spur columbine, oriental poppy, peony, fern-leaf globemallow, white evening primrose, purple mat flower, stickseed whitebristle, oxalis, bindweed, native and common dandelion, goatsbeard, tansy, tumble and purple mustard; rice, needle, downy chess, and three awn grass; June grass going to seed; lambs quarter and áñil del muerto sprouting.

What’s blooming in my garden, looking north: Lady Banks rose and perky Sue; buds on fern-leaf yarrow, blanket flower, coreopsis, chocolate flower.

Looking east: Coral bells, thrift, pinks, small-leaf soapwort, snow-in-summer, creeping baby’s breath, pink evening primrose, rockrose, winecup, Mount Atlas daisy, Kellerer yarrow; buds on pink salvia and hollyhock; Siberian pea has pods.

Looking south: Spirea, beauty bush, raspberry; buds on floribundas.

Looking west: Iris and flax; buds on sea lavender, baptista, catmint, purple beardstongue.

Bedding plants: Sweet alyssum, snapdragons, petunia, Dahlberg daisy, marigold.

Inside: Aptenia, kalanchoë, zonal geranium; buds on coral honeysuckle.

Animal sightings: Green bird with dark, long wing stripes in peach; humming bird, gecko, ladybugs under peach, bumblebee on pinks, darning needle, small butterfly, big black ants, small grasshoppers; sheep returned down the road.

Weather: Waxing moon, last frost May 7; lightening, clouds and winds every afternoon; rain and hail Wednesday, rain Thursday, spatters other days.

Weekly update: My favorite snowball is blooming.

Alas, it’s not in my yard, but in the village. It was taller several years ago, with rangy branches that flung its Christmas ornaments. Then someone decided it needed pruning. Last year, there were few flowers. This spring it looked like a pollarded trunk. Now, despite it all, its remaining 8' are covered with tightly corseted white clusters.
I wish I knew exactly what type Viburnum it is. When I look in mass market mail order catalogs, I see snowballs without definition and I see all kinds with specific names that don’t look like anything I want. In the area, 15 shrubs have slightly smaller heads than my favorite, and 10 have much smaller heads or more obvious horizontal layers. Most seem to have three-lobed leaves.

I feel like the people in Waverly, Alabama who walked into Greene Hill Nursery when they heard it carried traditional shrubs, and backed out exclaiming "No, no, no. We want the old snowball bush."

Steve Thomas finally satisfied them with Chinese Snowball (Viburnum macrocephalum), which Robert Fortune had shipped to England in 1846, shortly after Britain forced China to open some ports to its trade. It has serrated, oval leaves and 5" trusses.

It fell from trade favor because it’s not comfortable beyond zone 6 and its cuttings don’t like immediate transplanting. Japanese Snowball ( Viburnum plicatum tomentosum.), introduced a half century after Carl Peter Thunberg described it in a Kyushu garden in 1794, was a good substitute with 4" heads, ovate leaves, and a tolerance for zone 5.

What others are growing here could be anything. In 1995, one local hardware was selling Viburnum opulus ‘Roseum’ as Snowball Bush. In 1996 and 1998, it sold something described as Viburnum Snowball. Since 2003, it’s carried Viburnum plicatum, which it calls Japanese Snowball, even though it has maple leaves. The other hardware is offering the European lobed-leafed Eastern Snowball this year.

Last year I renounced local shrubs that couldn’t survive a summer, and ordered something called White Snowball from a midwestern nursery that sells bare root, field grown plants. It provided no identification, but the tripartite leaves tell me it’s probably the sterile opulus exported to England before 1597 as Gheldersche Roosen.

In the wild, all three Viburnum have flat round cymes, with larger, sterile flowers on their perimeters that attract insects to the smaller, bisexual flowers. Growers in China and Holland apparently found ways to encourage the asexual florets at the expense of the others, until the dominant large flowers morphed into spheres.

I’ll probably wait several years to discover if my blooms are acceptable. More likely, I’ll back away muttering "No, no, no. I wanted the bush in the village."

Coats, Alice M. Garden Shrubs and their Histories, 1964; reprinted 1992 with notes by John L. Creech.

Thomas, Steven, Greene Hill Nursery. Incident described in Steve Bender and Felder Rushing, Passalong Plants, 1993.

Yang, Qin-er, Michael Donoghue, Shiro Kobayashi, Hideaki Ohba, and Stephen Smith. "Caprifoliaceae," draft for Flora of China.

Photograph: Area snowball, 19 May, 2007, probably Viburnum opulus ‘Roseum.’

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