Seven Viburnums: Top shrubs to attract birds to your garden

High bush Cranberry is both beautiful and attracts birds

There is no question that shrubs in the Viburnum family are ideal choices for bird and wildlife lovers. But it’s important to note that they’re not just for the birds.

Gardeners will appreciate our native Viburnums as much in the spring garden with their impressive display of white flowers that attract an array of pollinators, as they will in the fall when their berries are in full bloom.

The one thing you should remember, however, is that you can’t have a bird garden without Nannyberry, Witherod, Hobblebush or High bush Cranberry.

In fact, woodland gardeners looking to attract an array of colourful birds to their backyards should consider the Viburnums as the stalwarts of their shrub borders.

While I get great enjoyment from my bird feeding stations, providing natural food sources to our feathered friends is always the goal we should aspire to in our gardens. I have written a comprehensive post on feeding birds naturally. You can read about it here.

The large family of shrubs provides birds with most of what they need, from nesting and shelter areas, to insects and a plethora of berries.

A Hermit Thrush eyes the fruits of the High bush Cranberry in the wooodland garden.

A Hermit Thrush eyes the fruits of the High bush Cranberry in the wooodland garden.

In zone 5, gardeners can expect fruit to be on display from as early as June through to January and beyond.

Your local high-end garden centre should carry a good selection of viburnums (see link at bottom of post) to choose from, just make sure that they are not hybrids that no longer provide resources for our backyard wildlife.

During the spring and summer, Viburnums are host to a selection of leopidoptera (butterflies and moths) at the caterpillar phases including species such as the Holly Blue Butterfly (Celastrina argiolus), the Hummingbird Clearwing moth (often mistaken for a hummingbird) and the silk and sphinx moths.

The caterpillars are an extra bonus providing important early food sources for birds feeding their young at the nest.

The flowers of the viburnum eventually give way to abundant array of colourful fruits that our backyard birds depend on to get them through the fall and winter.

For woodland gardeners, the range of colours the leaves of our native Viburnums turn as winter approaches is a pure visual treat.

A woodland of deciduous trees will provide the best shelter for them and early spring is the best time to plant them, just when the ground is thawing and the large buds have not yet opened. Plant them in time to enjoy the large flowers before they emerge in spring.

Although there are more than one hundred kinds of Viburnum throughout the world, in North America the major plants are the Hobblebush (one of the first fruit-bearing shrubs to bloom, with berries available all summer long in the woodland understorey.) The somewhat similar Nannyberry and Witherod, are often found in the wild growing in open ground, both with blue-back fruit that is eaten during the October migrations; and the High bush Cranberry, which keeps its fruit until the following spring.

Viburnum with berries in it’s vivid fall colours.

Viburnum with berries in it’s vivid fall colours.

What birds do Viburnums attract?

Viburnums are known to attract Bluebirds, Cardinals, Robins, Cedar Waxwings, Purple finches, Waxwings, Thrushes and Evening grosbeaks and Grouse. The shrubs are found through the northeast United States as far south as subtropical soils, and westward until the mountains block further progress.

The inland North American continent favours a variety of Viburnum shrubs, the best known being the American High bush Cranberry (Viburnum trilobum ) The high bush cranberry is native to every province in Canada in wet areas such as in thickets along shorelines, swamps and forest edges. In the United States, it is found from Pennsylvania to Wyoming.

The plant resists disease and severe pruning, and transplants well. Caring for it is relatively easy. They are susceptible to the larvae of the viburnum leaf beetle, which feed on its leaves. These European beetles can slow the growth of the bushes and even kill them if left unchecked. Clipping off affected branches and disposing of them usually solves the problem.

The plant’s soft green foliage changes to a warm brick red with the first fall frosts. Because the fruit stays on the branch much later than that of other shrubs it adds a bright red highlight to what is otherwise often a rather stark view of our woodland gardens.

The berries soon become a very important source of food for either our winter birds and late migrants, or the early spring migrants looking for critical sustenance at a key time. Don’t be surprised to see Pine Grosbeaks feasting among its branches.

In spring, when not a berry is left on the other fruit-bearing shrubs and vines, the translucent fruit of the high bush Cranberry continues to hang on in clusters, much to the satisfaction of the cedar waxwings and the local bluebirds.

The previous year’s berries can still be on the shrub when the new leaves emerge in spring. That’s when the cedar waxwings will move in and devour the remaining berries.

I’d like to thank Justin Lewis for this outstanding poster on Viburnums. Best viewed on tablet or desktop.

Viburnum lantanoides (Hobblebush)

This is one of the first shrubs to bloom in the spring, along with serviceberry, the Canada Plum and the Scarlet Elder. It’s been described as a scraggly, sprawling bush that favours moist deciduous forests up to about 3,000 feet in elevation.

Its fruits mature in the fall and fall of the branch if the birds have not already eaten them.

It sports large, round, slightly pointed heart-shaped leaves and shines in early spring when its spectacular blossom clusters cover the plant in mid-to-late May just when trilliums, trout lillies and mayflower cover the woodland floor.

Hobblebush does not grow abundantly, and reproduces to form small thickets by sending out runners.

Did you know: Folklore says Hobblebush earned its name from the fact it has long been a curse to anyone trying to bushwack through the woods. The shrubs tough, sprawling branches “hobble” the hiker. The shrub also goes by the popular name of Triptoe for much the same reasons. Hunters refer to the plant as “moosebush” because in winter the leathery brown buds apparently look like moose ears.)

Spring is when this shrub puts on its best show. It is truly a beautiful sight, with its dazzling white clusters lighting up the woodland shade. As the berries ripen they change to all colours of the rainbow, from green which gradually ripen over the summer and fall from yellow, then orange, scarlet, crimson, violet and finally to black.

The birds are frequent visitors, attracted to the darkest fruit. Sooner or later the Wood Thrush picks the branches clean.

Nannyberry (Sweet Viburnum) and Witherod (Wild Raisin)

These two shrubs are very similar. They bloom in midsummer, and their fruit is eaten in late fall often by migrating birds, particularly Thrushes and Bluebirds.

Their leaves can be difficult to tell apart, although those of the Witherod (sometimes called Appalachian Tea) are thicker and less sharp-toothed. Their white flowers are clustered. Witherod prefers moist ground while Nannyberry prefers dry ground.

Although it likes a drier soil, the Nannyberry is adaptable and can be grown in a wide range of conditions, but prefers to grow as an understorey plant in full to partial sun.

When they bloom, a fine diurnal butterly, Papilio turnus, are attracted to the Nannyberry flowers, which have the same creamy colours as its wings.

In the fall, these shrubs have colourful foliage.

Squashberry (Viburnum edule)

This is a very small shrub that rarely grows much over 5-6 feet. It’s fruit, unlike those of the High bush Cranberry, are at the end of stalks and far fewer in number.

Maple- Leaved Viburnum

Similar to the Squashberry, except for its distinctive leaves. It grows in dry, mountainous places beneath the shade of large trees and sports purplish-black fruit. In autumn, the leaves take on vivid yellow, rose and purple hues.

Arrowwoods (Viburnum refinesquianum)

The Shrotstalk Arrowwood is common in Canada and can be found in a similar form in the northern and central United States and Northern Arrowwood (Viburnum recognitum). In the southern United States there is Southern Arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum).

For a list of Viburnums available through most high-end nurseries go here.

More links to my articles on native plants

Why picking native wildflowers is wrong

Serviceberry the perfect native tree for the garden

The Mayapple: Native plant worth exploring

Three spring native wildflowers for the garden

A western source for native plants

Native plants source in Ontario

The Eastern columbine native plant for spring

Three native understory trees for Carolinian zone gardeners

Ecological gardening and native plants

Eastern White Pine is for the birds

Native viburnums are ideal to attract birds

The perfect Redbud

The Carolinian Zone in Canada and the United States

Dogwoods for the woodland wildlife garden

Bringing Nature Home by Douglas Tellamy

A little Love for the Black-Eyed Susan

Native moss in our gardens

Vic MacBournie

Vic MacBournie is a former journalist and author/owner of Ferns & Feathers. He writes about his woodland wildlife garden that he has created over the past 25 years and shares his photography with readers.

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