What characteristics define the “perfect” shrub for your landscape? Should it be native? Deer-resistant? Drought tolerant? A source of nectar for pollinators? Low-maintenance? Attractive in more than one season? If you answered yes to any or all of these, then Itea virginica or Virginia sweetspire may be just the plant for you.
This tough, highly adaptable shrub is native to the United States in USDA zones 6 – 9 from New Jersey to Florida on the Atlantic coast, extending westward throughout the Mississippi River Valley to southern Illinois. In the wild, Virginia sweetspire can be found growing in wetlands, along stream beds and along the margins of lakes and ponds. In the urban landscape, this versatile shrub provides multiple seasons of interest, making it a particularly valuable addition to the ornamental garden.
Virginia sweetspire is an upright or mounded, thickly branched, deciduous shrub with gracefully arching branches. It provides nesting and shelter for wildlife as well as food for bees, butterflies and moths. In the urban landscape, this mid-sized shrub grows 3 to 5 feet tall and has a spreading growth habit. In the wild, it may grow taller and leggier, particularly in moist or shaded sites.
This shrub has three seasons of interest. In late May and June, it is covered in a blanket of 5 to 6 inches long, white, sweetly scented, catkin-like “spires” (thus, the plant’s common name). Lasting for several weeks, the fragrant and graceful flowers are a magnet for bees and butterflies. Depending on the cultivar, the blossoms may either be held upright or cascade gracefully over the foliage. The flowers are produced on last year’s growth (old wood).
In summer, the floral display is replaced with rich, medium to dark green foliage, which makes the shrub an attractive choice for foundation plantings. The attractive, lustrous leaves are alternate, simple, toothed, elongate, and 1 to 4 inches long.
In autumn, the foliage changes from its rich green summer color to stunning, long-lasting shades of deep red, purple, orange, and yellow. While the floral display in late spring is attractive, it is the rich autumn color that makes this plant especially valued in the landscape. The fall colors vary, depending on sun exposure. Full sun exposure produces the most vibrant fall color.
While it would be nice to say that Virginia sweetspire is the “perfect” shrub for the landscape, it does have one downside — a tendency to sucker. The mother plant produces shoots from the root system that may develop into a colony of slender stems over time. The better the growing conditions, the more it suckers. If grown in drier sites with heavy clay soil, it suckers less vigorously than it does in rich, loamy soil with plenty of moisture. Depending on how you use it in the landscape, the suckering nature of this plant can be viewed as either a positive or a negative attribute.
Virginia sweetspire is a low-maintenance shrub recommended for medium acid soils with a pH of 5.0 to 6.5 and above. Alkaline soils can cause the foliage to be yellowish (chlorotic) due to a lack of available iron. It prefers moist, well drained to wet soil. Although it is categorized as a wetland species, it thrives just fine with average moisture conditions and can even tolerate droughty conditions. Just keep it well watered the first year to help it become well established. It will be drought tolerant once it is happily established.
It will develop a denser, more attractive habit when grown in a sunny site with at least 6 hours of sun per day, but it adapts well to shadier conditions. In shade, Virginia sweetspire may grow taller and leggier and will not flower as prolifically, nor will its fall foliage colors be as vivid.
Virginia sweetspire is easy to propagate. Stem cuttings, taken between May and September, root in about four weeks. Autumn is the best time to start a new plant by root division. Simply snip one of the suckered roots free of the mother plant.
Virginia sweetspire is deer resistant and does not have any serious pests or diseases although some selections may be more susceptible to flea beetles and leaf spot.
Adaptable to both sun and shade, as well as to wet and dry areas, this versatile, long-lived shrub is an ideal choice for a variety of landscape situations including:
- Single specimens
- Mass plantings
- Foundation plantings
- Mixed shrub and perennial borders
- Informal woodland settings
- Rain gardens
- Edgings along a wall or walkway (use the dwarf varieties)
- Moist areas, including pond or stream margins
- Dry soils, once established
- Tall ground covers. Its tendency to sucker makes it useful for erosion control, particularly near streams or moist sites or on large banks.
- Difficult sites, such as ravines, ditches or uneven terrain, where the soil may be slow to drain.
Bear in mind that it may be difficult to keep Virginia sweetspire within boundaries due to its suckering habit. Give it plenty of room to spread initially.
While the species is good, several selected cultivars are improvements. Prior to 1982, there were no named clones, but, since then, approximately a dozen selections or cultivars have become available commercially, including ‘Henry’s Garnet’, ‘Little Henry’, ‘Sarah Eve’, ‘Saturnalia’, ‘Longspire’, ‘Beppu’, ‘Shirley’s Compact’, and ‘Merlot’. Not all of them have consistently good fall color, however. Of the group, the following have excellent fall color and are generally easy to find in garden centers.
- ‘Henry’s Garnet’ is considered to be the best selection in terms of habit, floral display and fall color. The leaves turn a consistent reddish purple fall color and persist until winter temperatures fall below 15 to 20°F. It grows 4 to 5 feet high and about 4 to 6 feet wide. One of the benefits of growing ‘Henry’s Garnet’ is that it has larger flowers and better fall color than the species. It is the recipient of several awards, including the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s Gold Medal Award in 1988 and the University of Kentucky’s Theodore Klein Plant Award in 2000.
- ‘Little Henry’ is a dwarf form of ‘Henry’s Garnet’ and a good choice for homeowners who have smaller gardens. It only grows 2 to 3 feet tall and wide and has smaller 3- to 4-inch long flower tassels. The foliage turns orange and red in autumn.
- ‘Merlot’ is also a dwarf form of Virginia sweetspire. Slightly larger than ‘Little Henry’, ‘Merlot’ grows 3 to 4 feet tall and wide and has wine red fall color on leaves that persist well into winter. This low, mounding selection is hardy to Zone 5 and looks particularly attractive in a mass planting.
Dirr’s Hardy Trees and Shrubs, An Illustrated Encyclopedia (Dirr, Michael A., 1997)
Flora of Virginia (Weakley, Alan S., Ludwig, J. Christopher, and Townsend, John F., 2012)
Manual of Woody Landscape Plants (Dirr, Michael A., 1975, rev. 2009)
Native Plants of the Southeast (Mellichamp, Larry, 2014)
“Problem-Free Shrubs for Virginia Landscapes,” Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE) Publication 450-236
“Rain Garden Plants,” VCE Publication 426-043
“Selecting Plants for Virginia Landscapes: Showy Flowering Shrubs,” VCE Publication HORT-84
“Trees and Shrubs for Acid Soils,” VCE Publication 430-027
Pennsylvania Horticultural Society website (https://phsonline.org/)