Home of the Practically Perfect Pink Phlox and other native plants for pollinators

Friday, March 7, 2008

I Love Rusty

About 10 years ago a neighbor gave me five Rusty Blackhaw (Viburnum rufidulum) trees. I had introduced myself to her one day on a walk. Her yard was the only one in the neighborhood that was natural like mine so I had to meet the gardener who created the lovely yarden.

She gave me a tour and told me about her philosophy and her plants. She wanted to create a wildlife sanctuary in her yard but, she also did not want to offend the neighbors who were traditional (lawn and foundation plantings, if you please).

She introduced me to two native plants I had never seen before... Rusty Blackhaw and Rhus Aromatica. It was a late fall day and the leaves of those two beautiful plants were gone. When she offered me the Rusty Blackhaw I was thrilled... I knew that native trees were rare and expensive in the nurseries. I remember asking her if she was sure she wanted to give them away, hadn't she another spot for them...She assured me she had plenty and that there would be more where they came from.

She spoke so reverently about the Rusty Blackhaw mother tree ....I really wasn't exactly sure what she meant at the time, and wondered how long it took for those 'treelings' to grow from seed. I was thrilled to get 5 native trees.

It wasn't until Rusty Blackhaw was firmly established in my own garden that I realized what she meant by 'mother tree'. The little trees hadn't grown from seed, they where the mother tree's suckering root shoots that she had transplanted. Now I have several mother trees which are producing their own root shoots.

She was one of the first generous and hope filled gardeners that I met. She gave with such joy. She wanted me to know and love the plants as much as she did. I know I received more than 5 trees from her.

Now let me tell you about my mother tree.

Rusty BlackHaw (Viburnum rufidulum) is a native tree of the southeastern United States. If you can't grow Rusty try her cousin Blackhaw (Viburnum prunifolium) but I think Rusty is the superior tree!

Rusty is a understory tree with glossy dark green, leathery, serrated leaves and lovely clusters of white flowers up to 4 inches wide appearing in March and April. The flowers are striking and noticeable from a distance, especially against those glossy green leaves. If you look closely at the photo you can see some of the rusty fuzz on the back of the leaves, buds and young stems. Aren't those leaves incredible. Don't you just want to touch them?

Rusty Blackhaw is slender tree with a small trunk and usually grows to about 18 feet with a lovely open and airy vase shape. I think the bark which is rough with rectangular blocks is part of this trees good looks.

Because Rusty Blackhaw is a slow grower, you don't have to worry about it taking over your garden bed either. Viburnums want to colonize, so when a shoot shows up you have two choices: you can cut the shoot off or dig it up. The Mother tree is in a bed beneath a large Hackberry (Celtis) tree, so far there has been one suckering root shoot. See it is slow! Also, Rusty isn't a surface rooter so the St. John's-wort, ferns and wildflowers aren't crowded.

Rusty doesn't complain much and seems quite a home in the heat of the south in either full sun or semi-shade. It is drought tolerant (a necessary requirement for Chez Cedar Glade). It doesn't seem to be bothered by pests or disease (cross your fingers). And you know he transplants easily. I think you might get better flowering in full sun. But you won't hear me complaining...I think the tree shape and green leaves are pretty terrific.

But Rusty really shines in the fall when she puts on a burgundy red show and dangles those bluish seed pods.



  1. excellent post and you epitomized the real gardener in the woman who shared with you. this is what gardening is all about! i want to try rusty now! never knew anything about it! is it more like a tree or shrub?

  2. Tina,

    Thank you. Rusty can be either, mine happen to be a tree form, they came that way. I think most are probably tree form but if they were happy and you didn't cut the suckering shoots they would eventually grow into a thicket. Not sure how long that would take. I prefer the tree form.


  3. "Rusty" grows in Austin too, and I've admired it in nature preserves around town. I don't have one in my garden, but I may have to remedy that one day. Thanks for showing us why you like it.

  4. Pam,

    Texan's are very proud of Rusty...just do an internet search and either Florida or Texas sites show up. You have to search for Tennessee specifically.


  5. Hi Gail
    I loved the story of how you got to know your garden friend !
    I have a viburnum, but one of the mass cultivated types .. still a pretty "shrub" for now .. has flowers like Queen Anne lace ?
    There are so many different cultivars being created it is important to keep the natural "native" ones alive and growing in the neighborhood !
    Great job !

  6. Gail, what a beautiful Viburnum. I have several different shrub forms of Viburnum but never realized it also has a tree form.

    I first added them to the garden in hopes the berries would feed birds. Do you find birds flocking to your Rusty berries?

  7. Joy,

    The garden friend moved away and her yard and house are gone...McMansioned.

    I have viburnum carlessii, is that the one you have...smells delicious in the spring?

    I do love the natives but have some non natives, too.



    One day the seeds were there and then they were gone...when I don't know. I get less flowers 'cause of the semi shade. I will pay better attention this fall.

    Thanks all,

  8. That is a great post with lots of good and interesting info. I loved hearing about the generous neighbor also, and am lucky enough to have one like that down the street. I am on a bit of a viburnum kick, wanting lots of berries for the birds. Your tree has a beautiful fall leaf/berry combo. They say a good mix of types helps with berry production. Thanks for this post.
    Frances at Faire Garden

  9. Thank you Frances,

    What mix of Viburnums do you have in your yardden?


  10. I like those viburnums! The glossy leaves are nice. Berries and fall color are great too. Good post. I hope you're ready for snow, it looks like it's coming for real this time!

  11. Your photography does capture lots of interesting views. I don't know all there is about my camera either--something I really do need to learn.

    I have seen this tree you talk about. It reminds of the blooms on a Sambucus. I planted one last year and it may just got to my new home. I don't know if I can stand to leave it behind.

  12. What a nice introduction to something you love in your garden! We can't grow Rusty here. So far I've only planted one viburnum (Blue Muffin), but look forward to planting more. They will help me feed the birds in the winter! :-)

  13. I've been reading your blog for some time now, but never commented and this old post of yours struck a chord with me b/c I have an amazing Rusty (also below a hackberry) and it has always evoked a sentimental feeling from camping with my dad in the ouahita national forest as a young girl where I first discovered it's beauty. I'm so grateful to have inherited this lovely 6 years ago when we bought this home (built 60 plus years ago on a wooded lot across from a large green space in a flood zone!!) in Fort Worth, TX along with established arrowwood and maple leaf viburnums!! Thank you for your amazing posts and education! (The wildlife value is super added bonus!!)

    Melinda Ayn


"Insects are the little things that run the world." Dr. E O Wilson