In my last piece for Plant of the Week, I name-checked two French missionaries who worked in China, and were responsible for introducing several plants many of us think of as ‘British’ into horticulture. One of them was the prodigious Father Armand David (1826-1900), a Lazarist priest who, judging by the number of plants and animals named after him, must have spent considerably more time naturalising than saving souls.
It was David who first described the giant panda to western science, based on a skin he obtained from a hunter. Not only does he have a deer, owl, mole, finch, squirrel, thrush, vole and tit named after him, but a slew of truly beautiful plants, too. Clematis armandii, Acer davidii, Buddleja davidii, and Davidia involucrata, the iconic handkerchief tree, are celebrated names amongst cold climate gardeners. But the species I love best of all is the Viburnum which bears his name.
Viburnums are best known to Australian gardeners in the form of the deciduous European guelder rose, or pompom bush, Viburnum opulus,and the semi-evergreen garden hybrid V. x burkwoodii, with its luxuriously perfumed flowers. Viburnum davidii is like neither of these. It does bear flowers, but these are its least attractive asset. This is a viburnum grown mainly for its foliage and form.
Let’s take foliage first. The foliage of V. davidii is neat as a pin. Dark bottle green, matte in texture, but with just enough lustre to liven the plant up. Each individual leaf can grow the size and shape of a hand with fingers pressed together, and possess three deep pleats running the length of the blade. These handsome leaves are arranged neatly overlapping, right down to the ground.
In form, V. davidii is a neat, tidy bun. So tidy that it looks as if it has been clipped, though it requires no clipping at all. With its neat outline, coarse texture and very dark colour, it has a great deal of presence in the garden. It grows to 1.5m in height and width, with time.
In winter this dark green bun takes on a warm glow as burgundy flower buds extend from the tip of each shoot, remaining tightly closed for several weeks. The clusters of flowers open in spring. Each individual flower is tiny, and a dirty white colour. The overall effect is not particularly attractive, but luckily there is a lot going on in the garden at that time time of year anyway, so they can be easily ignored.
If both male and female plants are present, the females will set fruit. The dark red flower pedicels extend and intensify in colour during late spring, and the small, Tic Tac-like fruits ripen to a surprising metallic blue colour. Many plants from forests have the same adaptation, to attract birds, which can see in the ultraviolet light range, in low light conditions. Dianella and Davidson plums use the same adaptation in Australian forests. V. davidii’s blue berries, borne on a starburst of red pedicels, are very beautiful, so it is worth seeking out cutting-grown, sexed, male and female plants to ensure you can enjoy this unusual display.
Unfortunately, Viburnum davidii has been done to death in British landscapes, where it is to be found in every Sainsbury’s carpark and traffic island in the country, festooned with plastic bags and takeaway cups. Familiarity must truly breed contempt, because Viburnum davidii is actually a top-shelf evergreen shrub, although, as Phillips and Rix pointedly observe, it is ‘not beautiful unless very well grown’.
Australians are less likely to take this plant for granted than Brits, since it retains an aura of novelty for us. Viburnum davidii is not encountered much in Australian gardens, probably because it is a plant which likes temperate conditions, neither too hot nor too dry, which, let’s face it, is most of the country. However, if you live in an area which leans in the direction of ‘cool’ rather than ‘hot’, this is a plant you should definitely try. Coastal areas south of Sydney and Perth, mountains and tablelands of the Great Dividing Range, and Tasmania suit it well.
In my subalpine climate, V. davidii grows happily in full sun, although even here its foliage can get burnt during a heatwave. In areas with hot summers, a cool east- or south-facing position is a better bet. If you can keep the soil cool with plenty of leafy organic matter, a deep mulch, or, as I do, with shade from surrounding plants, it will be thankful. Depending on how hot and dry your summer gets, it may or may not need extra water. With Phillips and Rix’s stern injunction ringing in my ears, I do give mine the occasional drink before heatwave conditions.
I grow three wide domes of Viburnum davidii in my front garden. I use it to give solidity without too much height, and as a contrasting colour and texture against adjacent blobs of apple green Phormium colensoi and Azorella trifurcata, blue Beschorneria yuccoides, Melianthus major and Euphorbia rigida, and verdigris Helleborus argutifolius. V. davidii’s red winter flower buds pick up the red twigs of Cornus sericea ‘Baileyi’, rosettes of Sempervivum and Sedum ‘Voodoo’, red-foliaged Cordyline australis and pumilio, and Ribes sanguinea ‘King Edward VII’, while its black-green foliage talks to Cupressus sempervirens ‘Glauca’, Helleborus foetidus ‘Wester Flisk’, and Pachystegia insignis. I suppose what I’m saying is, this is a plant that goes with everything.
I am happy to report that, unlike every other plant I have written about to date, Viburnum davidii is freely available, although you might have to ask your nursery person to get it in for you. Remember to get a female and a male, so you can enjoy the display of berries. Be prepared to wait; they are not fast growers. I consider being prepared to wait for a quality plant – especially one with unprepossessing flowers – the mark of a true gardener.
Would you be willing to wait for such a plant?