Friday, December 5, 2014

A Madcap Horse

This post is about viburnums. Madcap horses are involved, but you have to read to the end to see how.

Such a madcap!

The two viburnums that are framed in the windows of our house look very structural. Whenever I look at them I am struck by their symmetrical looking branches.

There is a blackhaw viburnum with stiff branches by the bathroom window, and a rangy young Dawn viburnum outside the dining room window. This is Viburnum prunifolium in fall, trained into a tree:

From the dining room window here is Viburnum bodnantense 'Dawn' in autumn. It was just planted in spring 2011. Not much of a looker, and not much of a bloomer yet either, but so far I like the ladder-like branches:

They look so stiffly structural because viburnums have opposite branches. Most large trees and shrubs have alternate branches. There are only a few kinds of trees that are opposite.

Seen up close, the blackhaw's branches are clearly opposite each other.

And the Dawn viburnum's branches, silhouetted against the sky, also show that ladderlike form.

Knowing this has been helpful when I have come across a tree or shrub with generic looking small leaves that I can't identify. The leaves look like every other woody plant, the shrubby form could be anything, but when I see branches lined up opposite each other I know it is typically a viburnum or shrub dogwood.

Other opposite-branched trees are easy to identify: maples, ashes and horse chestnuts. They have leaves I can usually distinguish. Viburnums, shrub dogwoods, elderberries and bush honeysuckles are the ones that look like everything else until you see the branch structure.

Pia Bobacka photo
There is a mnemonic to remember the very few types of woody plants with opposite branches:


Adoxaceae - viburnums and elderberries
CAPrifoliaceae - honeysuckles
HORSE Chestnut

That works for me. . . . . as long as I can remember what the "A" stands for, or the "Cap" for that matter.

Or why I am standing there looking at a shrub and completely at a loss for what goofy animal I am supposed to come up with.


(Well, this worked better when viburnums and elderberries and honeysuckles were all in the Caprifoliaceae family. You only had to remember what was in that one family, and it was just MADCAP Horse. Then they moved viburnums and elderberries to a new family, the Adoxaceae, but left honeysuckles in the Cap family . . . so the mnemonic had to be expanded, and it's kind of defeating the purpose of a memory trick. At my age, anyway.)

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