Hobblebush: A potentially hazardous shrub

Hobblebush: A potentially hazardous shrub

AKA Moosebush, Witch-withy, Witchy-hobble, Witch-tangle and Tangle-legs

You cannot miss a Hobblebush (Viburnum lantanoides), should you come across one. For one thing, its ever-reaching branches often stretch across the understory, directly into the trail right about at shin height, ready to trip you. Thus, the name “tangle-legs.” They grow this way because they can reproduce by creating clones – the low growing branch will dip towards the earth, where it takes hold and sprouts roots.

The name ‘Hobblebush’ might come from this tendency to trip people, but it also may come from the fact that the leaves are broad, paired, and quite round, like a hobble used to keep livestock from wandering off. The names that include “witch” have less to do with magic and more to do with the Middle-English word “withy,” meaning a strong, flexible switch-like branch (this is also the derivation for the name of Witch Hazel, another unrelated understory shrub).

Hobblebush leaves and flowers

In mid-May, Hobblebush shrub blooms in flat-topped clusters of cream-colored flowers – mysteriously of two different forms. According to one prevalent theory the sterile, larger flowers on the outside of the cluster are to attract pollinators, while the smaller flowers on the inside of the cluster, because they have both male and female flower parts, offer all the reproductive capacity. However, it seems this has not been well studied.

The Viburnum genus, a group of native understory shrubs that includes Nannyberry, Arrowwood and Highbush cranberry, is widely sought after by a variety of wildlife. Hobblebush is no exception. Spring Azure butterfly caterpillars eat Hobblebush leaves. Deer and moose eat the buds, and Black-throated Green Warblers nest in it. Through the fall, rodents and birds, including ruffed grouse, brown thrashers and Cedar Waxwings, seek out the berries.

If you are looking for shade-loving shrubs for your garden, Hobblebush is an excellent native addition. It is an early spring bloomer. In the fall it produces generous clusters of red berries and the leaves turn purple, yellow and pink, so it offers great seasonal eye-candy. Perhaps, however, it is best located at a safe distance from the garden path.

hobblebush next to trail

Hobblebush along the trail at Tracy Shore Preserve in South Bristol