Leather Leaves


Several years ago, while attending a trade show, I was asked what some of my favorite plants were. My immediate response was evergreen or deciduous? The question asked by my friends and colleagues led me to two envisaging truths about myself. One, as a self proclaimed “tree-hugger”, there are far too many plants that I admire. Two, my somewhat obsessive compulsive tendencies had to be put to use immediately, and an excel spreadsheet had to be formed. To date there are some 400+ favorite plants on this spreadsheet. And while the list has grown over the years, some plants coming off the list too, there is one that has always been on the list. Leatherleaf viburnum, Viburnum rhytidophyllum, has such extreme versatility and beauty that it has potential in almost any landscape.

Michael Dirr’s biblical publication, Manuel of Woody Landscape Plants, describes the texture of Viburnum rhytidophyllum as “coarse throughout the year.” There seems to be some incredulity as to the evergreen merits of this plant however. I have found, over the years in retail, that consumers who have Viburnum x rhytidophylloides (Lantanaphyllum Viburnum) believe this to be Leatherleaf viburnum. In fact, this is a cross between V. lantana and V. rhytidophyllum. While it too has coriaceous foliage, it is not a “True Leatherleaf.” Not dismissing the potential of this group by any means, there is simply a difference.

Perhaps not as easy to procure as other viburnum, Leatherleaf viburnum is well worth the effort. Hardy to -15F it is truly a plant for all seasons. As I sit here writing this article in late December I am looking outside at a mass of Viburnum ‘Cree’ which are entirely evergreen. A cultivar selected from the U.S. National Arboretum, ‘Cree’ has all of the famed attributes of V. rhytidophyllum but this cultivar is a tad more compact and arguably more cold hardy. So what are these attributes which should make this plant so coveted? In the spring, mid May, slightly fragrant, yellowish-white flowers are borne. Expect large masses routinely as this and many other viburnum can be grown with ease. Large, dark, lustrous, leathery green leaves are a spectacular backdrop to showcase these flowers. Incidentally, the backside of these leaves is a grayish-brown tomentose (closely covered with down or matted hair with a felt-like texture). September through December you can expect heavy amounts of red fruit. Oval drupes morph from red to black as the season progresses. There is much truth that having different clones close to one another produces more prolific fruit. Other favorable attributes include their ability to adapt not only to soil, but to lighting conditions as well. I have seen Leatherleaf do phenomenally well in both full sun and extreme shade. Last but not least, for the time being they seem to be deer resistant too! This equation is constantly changing since the more educated consumers become about deer resistant plants the less of a selection deer have. That being said, the Viburnum ‘Cree’ in our backyard have not been touched to date.

Viburnum in general can and should be used for mass planting or as a single specimen. Far too often plants are used inappropriately. Spruce, pine and Leyland Cypress are being jammed against one another to create quick screens. Consider this, Leatherleaf Viburnum reaches heights of 10-15 feet tall with a similar spread. That’s roughly the size of a basketball hoop. Unless Michael Jordan is stopping by, most will not see over the tops of this plant.

Cool cultivars to seek out this spring include the following. ‘Green Trump’, introduced from Holland, is a wonderful compact form suitable for smaller footprints. ‘Cree’, mentioned earlier, is more compact than the species and the foliage on ours does not curl even in the coldest temperatures in central Jersey. ‘Roseum’ has pink flower buds which open yellowish-white. While these are all “True Leatherleaf” varieties I would be remiss if I didn’t mention another popular viburnum which is readily available. Viburnum x pragense (Prague Viburnum) has, in part, the parentage of Leatherleaf but was crossed with V. utile (Service Viburnum). Quick growing with pink flower buds, Prague Viburnum was found in Prague during the 1950’s, the capital of what was once Czechoslovakia.
Native to China, Leatherleaf Viburnum is among some two hundred+ species. Viburnums provide year round interest with their flowers, fruit and fall color with the deciduous types. They are a food source for song birds in the winter and in general very easy to grow.