Guelder rose is a deciduous, upright shrub that is native to Asia and Europe, including the UK.
Common name: guelder rose; dogberry; water elder; cramp bark; snowball tree; European cranberry bush
Scientific name: Viburnum opulus
UK provenance: native
Interesting fact: the common name ‘guelder rose’ relates to the Dutch province of Gelderland, where a popular cultivar, the snowball tree, supposedly originated.
What does guelder rose look like?
Overview: guelder rose is a spreading shrub. It can reach up to 4m high and can spread from 2-5m. It has greyish, hairless stems.
Leaves: opposite, simple, broad and three-lobed with coarse, serrated edges and sparse fine hairs on the underside. They are 5–10cm long, with a rounded base and coarsely serrated margins. In spring, the leaves are green, and they change to orange-yellow or red in autumn.
Flowers: distinct, branched inflorescences of creamy-white, or sometimes pink, flat-topped flowers appear in May to July. Each lacecap-like cluster of flowers is encircled by a ring of larger, sterile, flowers.
Fruits: round, translucent, bright red berries appear in autumn in hanging bunches.
Look out for: the three lobed leaves have leaf stems with a channel running down the centre and a pair of round glands near the apex of the leaf.
Could be confused with: leaves are similar to those of a maple (Acer campestre) but have three clear lobes and are softly hairy underneath, with a wrinkled upperside surface.
Identified in winter by: green, hairless buds have a pair of scales. Buds are pressed closely to the hairless twigs.
Where to find guelder rose
Guelder rose grows in damp, neutral or calcareous soils at low altitudes throughout the UK, but is rare in Scotland. Look for it in damp places along riversides and in fens, damp scrub, old hedgerow and woods among Alnus and Salix thickets. It is planted in parks and gardens and plants which spread from these sites to the wild sometimes include yellow-fruited cultivars.
Value to wildlife
The red berries are an important food source for birds, including bullfinch and mistle thrush. The shrub canopy provides shelter for other wildlife. The flowers are especially attractive to hoverflies.
Mythology and symbolism
Guelder rose is one of the national symbols of Ukraine and is mentioned in many folk songs and featured in art and embroidery.
How we use guelder rose
Guelder rose is grown as an ornamental plant in the UK due to its pretty flower heads and bright juicy berries. There are many cultivars of it in garden centres. Its berries can be mildly toxic if eaten raw but they can be cooked into jelly or jam.
It is thought that the bark of the guelder rose is effective in relieving muscle cramps when used in a tincture.
This species may be susceptible to damage from the Viburnum beetle, which defoliates, or removes, leaves from the shrub. Holes in the leaves and brown, dried leaf edges are signs of an attack. It may also be affected by leaf spot.