Vernal equinox or no, in much of the northern U.S., things still look pretty grim in late March. Thank goodness for those plants that say, in effect, “I don’t care that the weather is disgusting; I’m going to bloom, and to hell with the consequences.” Viburnum ×bodnantense is one such brave vegetal soul, opening its clusters of spicily fragrant, pale pink flowers just at the point where all it will take is one more day of gray skies overhead and slush underfoot to send you over the edge.
Viburnum ×bodnantense is the result of a cross between two Asian species, V. farreri, from northern China, and V. grandiflorum, from the Himalayan region. (Although the plant was first raised at the Edinburgh Botanic Garden in 1933, it didn’t receive its official name until two years later, from a similar plant growing at the garden of Bodnant in Wales, hence the specific epithet.) Both parents bear highly attractive flowers early in the year, but they have the reputation of being shy bloomers; also, V. grandiflorum can be stiff and gawky—the Scottish shrub experts E. M. H. and P. A. Cox went so far as to call it “almost ungainly so unyielding are the branches.”
Fortunately, V. ×bodnantense has a better habit and blooms more heavily than either of its parents. The cultivar that I grew in my Boston garden, ‘Charles Lamont’ (‘Dawn’ is the clone most frequently encountered; I can’t tell the two apart), assumed an open vase shape, aided by a bit of judicious pruning, after about four years in the ground. I planted it within view of a kitchen window where I went to check the temperature each morning on a thermometer mounted on the window frame. Even on days when the mercury rose no higher than the 30s or 40s, it was wonderfully reassuring to see the reddish buds swell and grow round, and then gradually open into the clusters of long-lasting, clear pink, tubular flowers. (Although V. ×bodnantense will bloom reasonably well in partial shade, the more sun you give it, the more flowers you’ll get.)
Admittedly, V. ×bodnantense is not a shrub you would plant for its summer foliage, although it stays perfectly respectable and even assumes handsome tints of russet and rose in the fall. Nevertheless, it settles in easily, doesn’t have to be fussed over, and will even tolerate a moderate level of drought once established. But more than that, it makes you believe in the possibility of spring.
A version of this article first appeared in Horticulture magazine, vol. 99, no. 2 (March/April 2002).