Eric’s Pet Plant: Fragrant Viburnum (Viburnum carlesii) ‘Aurora’

bud of viburnum carlesii

A bud cluster on our old Viburnum carlesii, cultivar unknown, just about to open and prove its worth to the world.

I usually agree with Eric about the plants he chooses as pets, but sometimes we really think as one and this is one of those times. Viburnum carlesii is a must-have shrub if you are moved by fragrance. There are other viburnums with lovelier forms, with handsomer leaves, with added fall interest from bright berries, but no other plant in the genus can hold a candle to its perfume.

Fragrant Viburnum (Viburnum carlesii ‘Aurora’)

By Eric Larson

Fragrant Viburnum is well named. In early April, the red buds open to pink flowers, which change to white as they mature, releasing along the way one of spring’s most intoxicating aromas.  These flower clusters are not the only reason to plant ‘Aurora’ Viburnum, but that one would be enough.

The genus Viburnum gets its name from the classical Latin name for one of its roughly 150 species, the European Viburnum, V. lantana. Our particular plant’s specific name is from W.R. Charles, who collected the species type where it is native, in Japan and Korea.

Viburnums are members of the Honeysuckle family, Caprifoliaceae, and all are either shrubs or small trees. Some species have been decimated by the Viburnum leaf beetle, but not our plant. In fact I can’t think of a more carefree shrub, since V. carlesii has no insect or disease problems to worry about.

If you look for the variety ‘Aurora,’ you don’t have to worry about pruning, either. The straight species will grow to 10 feet, but this selection stays nice and well-behaved, growing slowly to six or eight feet with a spread of four or five.

Another aspect of ‘Aurora’ that I truly appreciate is its fall color. It has a really nice wine-red to burgundy glow in October. Much more vibrant than the species’ typical dull red.

Plant Viburnums in full sun, in well-drained average garden soil. You can for sure count on fragrance from any V. carlesii, but fall color is pretty variable. This argues for choosing your plant at the local nursery (the species is widely available in the trade) in the fall, when you can see its “true colors.”

That said, you can plant in fall or spring, but make sure it’s near the garden or house entrance, where the fragrance will encourage visitors and family to stop and sniff.  They are good cut flowers as well.

young viburnum carlesii 'aurora'

This five foot shrub is eight-years old, so it is very well-behaved. Interplant with Narcissus species and perhaps some Grape-Hyacinth, and you’ll have a very nice mid-spring combination.


the flowers of viburnum carlesii 'aurora'

The 3 1/2 inch flowers above are clusters of small individual flowers, changing from pink to white as they mature. Intoxicatingly fragrant!

pink flowered fragrant viburnum (v. carlesii) in full bloom

The Venerable V. carlesii at Leslie and Bill’s house.

This 8 foot shrub is we don’t know how old. It was about this size when we got the place 20 years ago. I do prune it, in a halfhearted “meant to do that” way, and if I pruned it more it would  bloom more, but although it’s hunkier than ‘Aurora’,  it does, as Eric says,  more or less take care of itself. Incidentally, the fall color is totally blah; I’m sure it was purchased in the spring.

fragrant viburnum (V. carlesii) branches in a vase

We’ve had mixed success using ours as a cut flower. Sometimes the blossoms wilt almost as soon as the stems are cut, but these branches perfumed the living room for almost a week, to everybody’s delight.

To see and hear Eric holding forth on and in the garden, head on over to


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  • Tessa Said,

    I had to move the Viburnum carlesi just after it finished blooming but the plant has gone into shock with shome of the leaves going black and limpy. What can I do to make it look
    alive. Do I cut it back?
    Please help Thanks

    Hi Tessa,

    Viburnums are usually pretty tough, so there’s a good chance yours will pull through if it isn’t huge and you’ve been watering it faithfully. Cutting back may or may not be a good idea depending on a few details: How large is the plant, and how much of its root system were you able to preserve? When you say “some of the leaves” have died, do you mean a large percentage of them, or just a few? And how long has it been since the move took place? (The goal is always to reduce stress while leaving enough foliage to gather strength for new root formation.)

  • michele Said,

    I have two viburnum carlesi in that I just put into large containers on Sunday. Both look healthy but for some reason on one plant all of the flower heads are drooping. The flowers are still opening though. The leaves are not wilting and this is only happening with one plant and the conditions are exactly the same for both plants. Is this a common occurrence with viburnum? Thanks.

    Hi Michele, I passed your question along to Eric and this is what he said:

    “If the leaves have not wilted, then I feel pretty confident that the plant will survive the move. That the flowers on only one wilted is admittedly mystifying. Just like every one of us is reacts to conditions differently, I guess plants have that same right. Verticillium wilt can be a problem with this species, but it would affect the leaves as well as the flowers. Are these destined for an event? If so, you might look into replacing that plant for the display, but planting the wilted-flower one out where you can keep an eye on it. It might just be reacting to the transplant in a funny way, which is really my best guess.
    Good luck!”

    I can only echo his encouraging words. Although Viburnums are vulnerable to all manner of pests and diseases, they are also (by and large) very tough plants, able to survive many insults and still grow on to glory. We have an elderly V. carlesii that has been through several scary situations and is as I write in DESPERATE need of a major pruning. But it is also covered with bloom and perfuming the entire front yard in a very gratifying fashion.

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