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The Mystery Plant Revealed
Growing alongside the Dogwood is a shrub-like tree that provides a spectacular display of tiny, creamy white flower clusters set in wide, stalked flower heads. While these blooms may not outshine the delicate white flowers of the Dogwood, they still evoke gasps of appreciation from onlookers.
The neighbors and I wondered about the identity of this plant, as it looks like a nursery-grown plant that naturalized into the surrounding countryside. We contacted Tim Siegmund, our Milam County biologist from Texas Parks and Wildlife. Mr. Siegmund told us this plant is called a “Possumhaw Viburnum”, and is actually a native of this area.
The Possumhaw Viburnum (Viburnum nudum) is native from Maine to Florida, and west into Texas. It prefers wet woods, bogs, and creeks, with a more acidic soil. It is definitely more noticeable in the eastern part of Milam County where sandy soils are abundant.
However, they aren’t extremely particular about where they grow, and they are drought-tolerant once they mature.
The Possumhaw grows from ten to twenty feet tall, and has an open, somewhat rounded and weeping crown. It has dark, glossy leaves, which makes it look more “landscape-like” than most native plants. It is deciduous further north, but will usually keep its leaves down here. The leaves will turn red to reddish-purple before dropping.
The springtime flowers are not only striking, but also smell like flour. The flowers give way to small, berries in the late summer that go through several color changes, from green to pale yellow, then pink, and finally becoming a deep blue-black.
The berries are prized by wildlife, including songbirds, water birds, and small mammals. They barely have time to ripen before they disappear.
Viburnums make great landscape plants, and can be used as either a specimen tree or a hedge. They are naturally an understory plant species, so part shade won’t hurt them. They can even take mostly shade, although for more flowers it’s best to plant them where they get sun.
Over one hundred and fifty species of Viburnum exist. Many varieties are sold at nurseries. To get a fruit set, you will need to purchase two different varieties, and plant them close together. At least two cultivars of Viburnum nudum, the Possumhaw Viburnum, are commercially available. These are the “Brandywine™”, and the “Winterthur”. You can also try growing some the old-fashioned way, by picking some of the berries yourself, and starting them in pots in the spring.
Over the years, the Viburnum has been put to many uses. The limbs have been used to make arrow-shafts. The fruit of some can be eaten raw or made into jam. However, the fruits of other Viburnum species are mildly toxic and can make you sick. I was not able to figure out which type of fruit the Possumhaw Viburnum possesses, so my recommendation is not to eat it.
The bark of some viburnum species has medicinal properties as an anti-spasmodic, as well as asthma treatment. In particular, the Rusty Blackhaw Viburnum, which grows in east and central Texas, has been used to treat stomach cramps, particularly cramping in women.
The Rusty Blackhaw looks a lot like the Possumhaw, but has bright green leaves instead of dark green. It can get to thirty feet high, and grows just about anywhere as long as the soil is well-drained.
The word “Possumhaw” may sound familiar, as I wrote an article a few months back about the “Possumhaw Holly”. These two plants are unrelated, and while the Possumhaw Holly is known to be a favorite delicacy for opossums (hence the name), it was not specifically stated whether opossums enjoy the Possumhaw Viburnum just as much.
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