Virginia Sweetspire – A Close Look at a Native Shrub

Itea virginica – Virginia Sweetspire – is recognizable in the landscape not for its memorable shape so much as its impact when planted as a mass. A close look reveals the individual features that combine so well to create this effect:

VirginiaSweetspireFallFoliage181221
Virginia Sweetspire Fall Foliage
  • New leaves with finely notched edges thinly outlined in red. The leaves are oblong in shape, slightly folded, and grow to about 1 1/2” in length in cultivars such as ‘Little Henry’.
  • Arching spires of flower buds that extend above the foliage and open in summer, usually June or July. Each spire is dense with small white, lightly scented five-pointed flowers that last for several weeks and are a good food source for bees.
  • Over a long period in fall, a kaleidoscope of leaf color that blends ruby, purple, and yellow, in stages or simultaneously.
  • Slightly wiry and kinked maroon stems that become visible as the leaves drop and stand out against contrasting backgrounds such as stone, wood, or fresh snow.

A native shrub with a range that extends from Texas to Illinois, east to Pennsylvania and south to Florida, Sweetspire does well in wet soils and is a good choice for rain gardens but also can manage drought. Sun requirements range from full sun to part shade, with more intense flowering and fall color in full sun. In the warmer areas of Zones 5 to 9, its plant hardiness range1, Sweetspire may show semi-evergreen tendencies, with a portion of leaves holding on during winter and dropping suddenly to be replaced by new growth. Disease tolerance is good, with leaf spot one of few potential problems.

Two of the better known cultivars are ‘Henry’s Garnet’ and ‘Little Henry’. ‘Henry’s Garnet’ typically grows up to 4’ high and 6’ wide, with ‘Little Henry’ a smaller version at 2’ high and 2.5’ wide.2

Sweetspires are suckering shrubs and expand by sending out shoots from roots or lower stems. Pruning helps control this growth and reduces the density of the interior stems, creating a more shapely plant. Sweetspires bloom on old wood (the previous year’s stems rather than new growth in the current year) and should be pruned after flowering to allow new buds to develop throughout the rest of the year.

A member of the Order Saxifragales3, Sweetspire is related to several other shrubs with delicate flowers and good fall color, including Fothergilla, Witchhazel, and Winterhazel. The flower shapes are different – bottlebrush for Fothergilla, ribbon-like starbursts scattered along the branches for Witchhazel, and dangling chains for Winterhazel – but from an aesthetic perspective they share a kind of quiet beauty.

To leverage this quietness and take advantage of the rich color in autumn, plant Sweetspire in clusters or long borders. The arching flowers and fall foliage are striking when multiplied.


Notes

1. “USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map.” Agricultural Research Service. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Accessed March 3, 2019. https://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/PHZMWeb/Default.aspx

2. “Itea virginica ‘Henry’s Garnet’” and “Itea virginica ‘Sprich’ LITTLE HENRY.” Plant Finder, Missouri Botanical Garden. Accessed March 3, 2019. http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?taxonid=249812&isprofile=1&basic=garnet and http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?taxonid=249813&isprofile=1&basic=little%20henry

3. “Itea virginica.” Integrated Taxonomic Online Database. Accessed March 2, 2019. https://www.itis.gov/servlet/SingleRpt/SingleRpt?search_topic=TSN&search_value=24202#null


If you’d like to read more . . .

Chadwick, Pat. “Virginia Sweetspire.” The Garden Shed, Vol. 3, No. 6, June 2017. Piedmont Master Gardeners, Charlottesville – Albemarle County, Virginia. Accessed March 2, 2019. https://piedmontmastergardeners.org/article/virginia-sweetspire/

Dirr, Michael A. Manual of Woody Landscape Plants. Sixth Edition. Champaign, Illinois: Stipes Publishing L.L.C., 2009. p. 568-570.

“Itea virginica.” Chesapeake Bay Native Plant Center. Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Accessed March 2, 2019. http://www.nativeplantcenter.net/plants/itea-virginica/

“Itea virginica.” NC State Extension. Accessed March 2, 2019. https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/all/itea-virginica/

“Itea virginica (Virginia sweetspire).” Native Plants of North America Plant Database. The University of Texas at Austin Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Accessed March 2, 2019. https://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=ITVI

“Plants Profile for Itea virginica (Virginia Sweetspire).” USDA, NRCS. 2019. The PLANTS Database (http://plants.usda.gov, 3 March 2019). National Plant Data Team, Greensboro, NC 27401-4901 USA. https://www.plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=ITVI

Note: The original draft of this post was written on March 3, 2019.


Edgings Plant Bio #3

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