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A Comprehensive Guide to Small-Leaf Arrow-wood (Viburnum obovatum)

Small-Leaf Arrow-wood (Viburnum obovatum) is a shrub that is native in the southeastern United States. This species is a host to the holly blue (Celastrina argiolus), Spring Azure (Celastrina ladon), Henry’s elfin (Incisalia henrici) and the baltimore checkerspot (Euphydryas phaeton). Growing from 10 feet to 25 feet tall, this species grows generally in disturbed mesic woodlands. The white flowers bloom from March to April and the plant is hardy in zones 6-10.

Taxonomy and Naming of Small-Leaf Arrow-wood (Viburnum obovatum)

Herbarium specimen of small-leaf arrow-wood (Viburnum obovatum).
Herbarium specimen — Viburnum obovatum Walter collected in United States of America by The New York Botanical Garden (licensed under CC BY 4.0).

Taxonomy

Small-Leaf Arrow-wood (Viburnum obovatum) was originally named and described by Thomas Walter, an English botanist, in 1788. It has kept this same name since and is a member of the Muskroot Family (Adoxaceae).

Meaning of the Scientific and Common Names

Scientific Name

The genus name, Viburnum, derives from the Latin word for obscure or wayfaringtree. The species name, obovatum, is Latin for “gently or quietly.”

Common Name and Alternative Names

The common name comes from the nature of the leaves. Another name is Walter’s Viburnum (gardenia.net) and small viburnum.

Physical Description

White flowers of small-leaf arrow-wood (Viburnum obovatum).
Flowers of Small-leaf Arrow-wood – –Viburnum obovatum Walter observed in United States of America by kcthetc1 (licensed under CC0 1.0).
  • Plant Type: This plant is a shrub.
  • Height: 10 ft (3.0 m) to 30 ft (9.1 m)
  • Stem: There are multiple stems with light brown to gray bark that is hairless.
  • Leaves: The leaves are simple, opposite, orbicular, ovate to elliptical and have dentate, serrate, or crenate margins. They are 1.2 in (3.0 cm) to 4 in (10.2 cm) long and 0.8 in (2.0 cm) to 3 in (7.6 cm) wide.
  • Flower color: white
  • Blooming period: This plant blooms from March to April.
  • Fruiting type and period: This plant has reddish-brown to black drupes that mature in the late summer to fall.

Range of Small-Leaf Arrow-wood in the United States and Canada

Range map of small-leaf arrow-wood (Viburnum obovatum) in the United States and Canada.
Range Map of Small-leaf Arrow-wood (Viburnum obovatum) — Range Map Credit: Kartesz, J.T., The Biota of North America Program (BONAP). 2023. (website https://bonap.org/). Chapel Hill, N.C. [maps generated from Kartesz, J.T. 2023. Floristic Synthesis of North America, Version 1.0. Biota of North America Program (BONAP). (in press)]

This Viburnum is native to the southeastern United States. It is considered to be rare in the state of Alabama.

Habitat

Dry rocky woodland habitat.
Dry Rocky Woodland — Patrick Alexander from Las Cruces, NM, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

This species grows in disturbed mesic woodlands (Anderson 2007).

Hosted Insects

Baltimore Checkerspot butterfly on vegetation.
Baltimore Checkerspot (Euphydryas phaeton) — D. Gordon E. Robertson, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This viburnum is a host to the holly blue (Celastrina argiolus), spring azure (Celastrina ladon), Henry’s elfin (Incisalia henrici), the Baltimore checkerspot (Euphydryas phaeton), and the scarce fritillary (Euphydryas maturna).

Other Supported Wildlife

Blazing star (Liatris spicata) with bumblebee in McMullen House garden.
Bumblebee on Blazing Star (Liatris spicata) — Robert Coxe, Image

This species is a nectar source to other butterflies, skippers, bees, and wasps during the growing season. Birds enjoy the fruits in the fall.

Frequently Asked Questions

Does this plant have any ethnobotanical uses?

The Native American Ethnobotany Database does not list this species specifically, but other species of this genus have been used for many pharmaceuticals and foods.

How is this plant distinguished from other Viburnums?

This species is similar to possumhaw (Viburnum nudum), but possumhaw has larger leaves (5-12 cm vs. 2-5 cm) and elliptic to ovate leaves (Weakley 2022).

Is this plant invasive?

This species has not been noted as being weedy.

Gardening with Soft-Leaf Arrow-wood

White flowers of small-leaf arrow-wood (Viburnum obovatum) in a wooded area.
Flowers of Soft-Leaf Arrow-wood — Viburnum obovatum Walter observed in United States of America by kcthetc1 (licensed under CC0 1.0).

Hardiness

This species is hardy in zones 6-10. If your garden is within these zones and you have the right growing conditions (soil, moisture and exposure), you may well be able to grow this plant. However, if planted outside of its range, the hosted species may not recognize the plant or be harmed by ingesting a different species with an unfamiliar chemical composition.

Optimal Conditions

This species requires full sun to part-shade and moist, preferably, to medium well-drained soils.

References

  • Anderson, Loran C. 2007. Noteworthy Plants from Northern Florida. VIII. Journal of the Botanical Research Institute of Texas. 1: 741-751.
  • Weakley, A.S. and the Southeastern Flora Team. 2022. Flora of the southeastern United States. University of North Carolina Herbarium, North Carolina Botanical Garden.
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Robert Coxe

Robert Coxe

Robert Coxe is a professional ecologist and botanist who has worked as the State Ecologist of Delaware and as an ecologist for the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. He is also a former Past-President of the Pennsylvania Academy of Science. He currently is an innkeeper at McMullen House Bed & Breakfast LLC and a web designer and owner for Silphium Design LLC.

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