Snowball bushes are very popular shrubs in gardens in Europe and America. They should not be confused with the hydrangea that produces large balls of flowers in white, pink and blue. The formal name of the snowball bush is Viburnum opulus, and it also produces balls of white flowers, but the flowers are much smaller than those of the hydrangea.
The snowball bush is a large deciduous bush that grows to about 10 to 20 feet in height. It has green leaves and large globe-like clusters of white flowers. It can be planted in the sun or partial shade in moist soil. The flowers appear in the late spring and are white to cream with a green tinge. They turn pink later in the season, and the leaves of the bush turn purple just before they fall in autumn. Most snowball bush varieties are sterile and do not produce fruit. Earlier forms produced large clusters of bright red, shiny, translucent berries.
The nickname of the Viburnum opulus is snowball bush, but it is known by several other names as well. They include European cranberry, highbush cranberry, Geulder or Gelder rose, Whitsun-boss, love roses and pincushion tree.
The shrub shows up in documents as far back as 1554 in Europe. In 1770 it was described as looking like balls of snow and from then on was often called the snowball bush. An old name, Guelder rose, comes from its place of origin. This was Guelderland, a Dutch province where the bush was first known to be cultivated. Dutch immigrants brought the shrub to England. It did not originate in England as many believe.
History in America
The shrub is very popular in America. It is often planted alone or used as a high hedge. In 1794 Thomas Jefferson planted it in his garden at Monticello. It was called Gelder rose in the garden registry. Use of the shrub spread, and it now appears in gardens in much of the country.
History as Medicine
Snowball bushes also were used in medication. The bark was mixed with water or diluted alcohol and called cramp bark. Its use was documented in several medical journals in the late 1800s. The bark contains valerianic acid, which when taken internally stops spasms, cramps of arms and legs and uterine cramps. It was used to stop cramping during pregnancy. The remedy also was used for asthma and hysteria. A poultice of the berries was often used to ease skin ulcers.