Lost in the sea of more popular and showy spring-flowering landscape shrubs like azalea, spirea, and the like, is an underused, exceedingly tough, and currently flowering Florida native shrub that is deserving of a spot in your landscape, Walter’s Viburnum (Viburnum obovatum).
Walter’s Viburnum, named for English-born botanist turned South Carolina farmer Thomas Walter, who first described the species in the late 1700’s, is a spring-flowering mostly evergreen shrub/small tree native to the Southeastern United States. In its native environment around hammocks, swamp edges, and near-river forests beneath the understory of canopy trees, Walter’s specimens often grow to around 15’ in height, live for more than 50 years, and spread slowly into loose thickets from their extensive underground root system. After covering themselves in clusters of small, showy, pollinator-attracting white flowers in spring, Walter’s produces small reddish-black fruit that are magnets for birds and other small wildlife in summer.
Though this tough, low-maintenance nature and gorgeous pure white March flower display should have seemingly enabled Walter’s to be a standout in the landscape, Walter’s Viburnum languished in popularity for many years as it didn’t fit into most landscapes in its wild form. Not too many folks in modern landscape situations are looking for a thicket forming, unkempt-looking tree! However, with increased breeding efforts aimed at selecting superior dwarf varieties and the rise in interest in using low-maintenance native plants, Walter’s has rapidly gained market share on traditional flowering shrubs in nurseries and yards in across Florida.
These newer dwarf varieties of Walter’s, including standouts like ‘Mrs. Schiller’s Delight’ and my personal favorite ‘Whorled Class’, only grow 3-4’ in height and make an excellent replacement for more commonly planted small foundation shrubs. Why plant a disease-prone Boxwood when you can have a disease-resistant native dwarf Walter’s Viburnum? Why allow your landscape to be saddled with drab Dwarf Yaupon Holly when you could get the same basic effect AND an awesome flower show by planting a dwarf Walter’s? Tired of having to constantly prune those Loropetalum or Azaleas to keep them from hiding the house? I think you know the answer by now; plant a slow-growing dwarf Walter’s!
Both the “wild-type” Walter’s Viburnum and the newer dwarf cultivars are about as low maintenance landscape shrubs as one could want. Though Walter’s normally occurs in shaded understory situations with moist, acidic soils in the wild, it is very adaptable to all manner of landscape situations. The species takes full sun extremely well but will also thrive with shade. It will tolerate very moist soil but, once established, is drought tolerant. I fertilize my Walter’s plants each spring with a general purpose, balanced garden fertilizer to boost growth, but there are many plantings of the species that get by without supplemental fertilizer. Finally, due to the dwarfing nature of the previously mentioned Walter’s cultivars, constant shearing won’t be necessary to maintain a pleasing shape, but they do respond well to pruning when a haircut is needed!
If you’ve been looking to include something a little bit different from the standard spring flowering fare in your landscape but also require your plants to be tough adaptable, try Walter’s Viburnum, especially the cultivars ‘Whorled Class’ or ‘Mrs. Schiller’s Delight’. They’ll be attractive, low-maintenance additions to nearly any Panhandle landscape for years to come! For more information about Walter’s Viburnum or any other horticultural or agricultural topic, contact your local UF/IFAS County Extension office. Happy gardening!