PLANT OF THE WEEK #94: Viburnum opulus (‘Kalyna’ to Ukrainians)

My suggestion for plant of this week is one which holds deep significance to a country currently enduring great suffering. The war in Ukraine continues to shock the world with Russia’s obscene brutality and aggression causing heartbreak, human suffering and devastation on an unimaginable scale. The global support for Ukraine and the fighting spirit of the Ukrainian people has been amazing, and we can only hope for a swift end with Ukraine winning the independence, freedom and peace that it so well deserves. Ukrainian identity has never been stronger, and if one of Putin’s plans was to erase Ukrainian culture and identity, it has backfired spectacularly. To even have Pink Floyd release a new song, called ‘Hey Hey Rise Up!’, their first in nearly 30 years, drawing attention and support for Ukraine is amazing (go to the YouTube clip here). The lyrics of ‘Hey Hey Rise Up!’ draw inspiration from a Ukrainian folk song about a species of Viburnum native to Ukraine and hence our plant of the week – the revered ‘Kalyna’ bush of Ukraine. 

Viburnum opulus ‘compactum’ in bloom at Great Dixter

No wonder gardeners obsess over plants so much. They enrich our lives in so many ways. And perhaps one of the most profound ways a plant can enrich our lives is by the significance and meaning that they often carry. Such plants provide a powerful emotional connection to a person, place or time that can often trigger moments of reflection, remembrance, and comfort. For Ukrainians, the Kalyna is one such plant.

The Kalyna bush of Ukraine is Viburnum opulus – a deciduous shrub reaching between 3-5 metres and which grows well in most soils. Although the same plant, it is not to be confused with the Viburnum opulus ‘sterile’,  known as ‘Guelder Rose’ or ‘Snowball Tree’ that you see about. It is the non-sterile version and has lace-cap white flowers, as opposed to the ball shaped flowers of the sterile version, and is followed by orange-red berries in the autumn. There are compact versions available known as ‘nana’ or ‘compacta’ and a large, sprawling form named ‘Notcutt’s variety’. As with other viburnums, in Australia it will produce beautiful white flowers around mid-spring. I find the white of viburnum works wonderfully with the blues and mauves of lilacs which also flower at the same time. During summer it works as a wonderful background foliage plant and then in autumn it rewards with spectacular autumn colour and the all-important red berries.

The same plant in berry, later in the season

The Kalyna has been a symbolic part of Ukrainian culture since ancient times. Its meaning has been transferred through the ages in both legend and song. A broken Kalyna tree was a sign of trouble and tragedy. Abuse of a Kalyna was a shameful act. Ukrainians have always carefully protected the Kalyna as there was a belief that Kalyna only grew next to good people. Kalyna has a power that can bring immortality and can unite generations to fight evil. The Kalyna is also reflected in Ukrainian embroidery and jewellery – for example in the traditional floral head wreaths of Ukrainian women’s national dress with the red Kalyna berries representing beauty and charm. 

Pink Floyd’s new song in turn draws inspiration from a well known Ukrainian song about the Kalyna’s power to unite generations and to fight evil.  It’s an old army march called ‘The Red Kalyna in the Meadow’ written to inspire troops fighting for Ukrainian independence in WWI.  The first two verses are below, and I think they demonstrate how humans often look toward plants to signify special meaning and provide inspiration. As both a gardener and someone of Ukrainian heritage, I find the significance and the meaning of this song deeply emotional. Since this war started I don’t think I will ever walk past a Viburnum opulus ever again without reflecting on Ukraine’s struggle for independence and the brave Ukrainians fighting so hard for freedom and peace. And if I see a viburnum sulking in the garden I shall love it and support it so that it can rise up …just like Ukraine. Slava Ukraini!

The Red Kalyna in the Meadow

In the meadow, there a red kalyna, has bent down low,

For some reason, our glorious Ukraine, has been worried so.

And we’ll take that red kalyna and we will raise it up,

And we, our glorious Ukraine, shall, hey – hey, cheer up – and rejoice!

And we’ll take that red kalyna and we will raise it up,

And we, our glorious Ukraine, shall, hey – hey, cheer up – and rejoice!

Do not bend low, Oh red kalyna, You have a white flower.

Do not worry, glorious Ukraine, You have a free people.

And we’ll take that red kalyna and will raise it up,

And we, our glorious Ukraine, shall, hey – hey, cheer up – and rejoice!

And we’ll take that red kalyna and will raise it up,

And we, our glorious Ukraine, shall, hey – hey, cheer up – and rejoice!

Follow Ashley on instagram – sassafras_gardens


  1. Such beautiful words, Ashley.

  2. From Karla, via my email

    Since this war began I have thought about the Ukrainian gardeners who spent the dark winter planning their spring gardens, who may have already received their spring bulbs in the mail, who had started their summer seedlings to germinate on a warm windowsill, waiting for the ground to warm up enough to plant. The farmers who know their wheat and sunflowers are a huge and vital part of the world’s food supply and who had already ordered their seed grain ready to plant, who now plough their fields hoping not to detonate Russian mines. The people who fled their towns taking children, clothes, pets, but leaving behind their indoor gardens, wondering if they’d be home before the plants dried out. The plans for the summer that will not come this year.

    Many thanks again for knowing that, even in the garden, we are aware and watching the world.
    I send my solidarity especially to the gardeners and farmers of Ukraine.

  3. And from reader Jan, via email

    What a wonderful tribute to Ukraine

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