irginia Sweetspire (Itea virginica)

Itea, Virginia Sweetspire, Virginia Sweet Spire, Virginia Willow

In an age of climate change and wildly unpredictable weather, we all need more plants in our gardens that can roll with the punches and still look gorgeous, come what may. One such plant is Virginia sweetspire, a durable native shrub that grows well in either sun or shade and tolerates drought as well as flooding rains.

I. Appearance and Characteristics 

Itea virginica, commonly known as Virginia willow or Virginia sweetspire, is a small North American flowering shrub that grows in low-lying woods and wetland margins. Virginia willow is a member of the Iteaceae family, and native to the southeast United States. Itea virginica has small flowers on pendulous racemes.

Depending on location, the species will bloom in late spring to early summer. It prefers moist rich soil, but it can tolerate a wide range of soil types. When Virginia willow is used in horticulture it can form large colonies and may form dense root suckers, making the shrub hard to remove.

Itea virginica is a deciduous shrub that grows to 2.5 m (8.2 ft) tall and 1.5 m (4.9 ft) broad, with alternate, simple leaves on arching stems. The flowers are white or cream, borne in downward pointing slightly curved spikes, in summer. It is a multi-stemmed, suckering and colonizing plant, with the stems branching infrequently except at the tops. In favorable conditions it may become semi-evergreen. The leaves turn shades of red in fall (autumn). It is hardy down to at least −15 °C (5 °F).

II. How to Grow and Care

This shrub1 is easy to grow in any average, well-drained soil that has medium to wet moisture levels. It grows well in both full sun and partial shade, though it will achieve the best shape, flower color, and fall color in full sun. It likes humusy soils, so mixing in compost before planting is a good idea. Although these bushes are considered plants tolerant of wet ground and clay soils, they will nonetheless perform best in well-drained soils.

Sunlight

Virginia sweetspire grows best in full sun (6 hours or more of direct sun), where it produces maximum flowers and vivid fall foliage color. It also grows in partial or full shade, but the shrub may be less dense with reduced flowering, and the fall color will be less spectacular.

Temperature and Humidity

In the colder parts of its range, winter temperatures may cause some branches to suffer dieback. Damaged stems can be removed in the spring. The shrub is semi-evergreen and will maintain its leaves until the temperature drops to 20°F or lower. In warmer regions, the shrub prefers temperatures between 40° and 95°F. It handles high heat well as long as it receives plenty of water. Some shade and mulching are beneficial to prevent the soil from drying out. Virginia sweetspire prefers a moist, humid environment, although it tolerates drought after it is established

Watering

Water these shrubs quite often when they are young and getting established, then weekly when they mature (one inch per week). They will tolerate short periods of drought but perform best when they receive regular water. Hot climates call for more water.

Soil

Plant this shrub in humusy, well-drained soil that is somewhat on the moist side. It prefers a slightly acidic pH but grows well in a range of soils.

Fertilizing

A single application of a balanced slow-release fertilizer each spring is sufficient for Virginia sweetspire. Follow the directions on the label for the correct amount. Spread the fertilizer on the soil at the dripline of the shrub and not immediately adjacent to the trunk.

Planting Instructions

A container-grown Virginia sweetspire can be planted almost any time, but spring or fall are best.  Fall is also the best time to divide suckers to expand a planting.

To plant Virginia sweetspire, select a site that can be kept moist while the shrub becomes established. Allow 4 to 6 feet of space between plants. Dig a hole twice as wide and about the same depth as the shrub’s root ball. Set the root ball in the hole so that it is at the same depth as it was growing in the container. Backfill the hole around the root ball with the soil removed when you dug the hole and water thoroughly. Cover the area with about 3 inches of organic mulch to help maintain even soil moisture.

Pruning

You can prune Virginia sweetspire to shape it or control its size, but pruning is not otherwise necessary. Because it blooms on old wood (previous year’s growth), pruning should be done immediately after blooming so that the plant can develop the wood necessary for next year’s blooms. Pruning in the spring risks removing the flower buds.

In USDA growing zone 5a (the northern end of its range), a bush will likely experience several inches of winter dieback on the tops of the branches (they turn a tan color). Such dieback in winter means the loss of some of the flower buds that produce blooms in spring.

Stay ahead of any root-suckering that may occur if you do not wish for the bushes to spread. Root suckering will be most prevalent with shrubs planted in wet ground.

Propagation

Tassel-white is relatively easy to propagate from seeds collected in late summer to early fall. 

As this is a suckering plant, it also may be grown from semi-hardwood cuttings collected at the same time as seeds.

To harvest and germinate from seed:

  • Remove the seeds from their capsule and store in sealed, refrigerated containers until spring. 
  • Sow thinly in flats and keep in a greenhouse. 
  • Transplant to larger pots once germinated.

For the best growth, keep young plants in a container for the first year before transplanting.

You will know when they are ready once the roots begin growing up or down the pot.

To grow from trimmings, select the tip of a healthy stem once spring growth has concluded.

Ideal stems are flexible at the tip, but firm and woody by the base and no flowers. 

Clip approximately 6” inches from the tip, stripping off any leaves from the bottom half with a sharp knife.

Dip the base into a powdered root hormone and plant 3″ to 4” inches deep in an equal mix of peat, perlite, and sand.

Mist the leaves twice per day until the new roots are established, then keep the soil moist until the plant is well-established and ready to transplant outdoors.

Potting and Repotting 

Keeping a Virginia sweetspire in a container for the first season is entirely possible. When the root system is well-established and trying to fight its way out of the container, it’s time to plant it in the landscape.

Overwintering

Virginia sweetspire does well during the winter, though those in colder climates might see some dieback of the tips of the shrub during the harsh cold. It will come back strong in the spring.

Pests and Diseases

Common Pests and Plant Diseases

This plant is quite hardy and doesn’t have any serious pests to contend with. Even deer tend to leave it alone. However, it might develop flea beetles or leaf spot. Flea beetles can be handled with neem oil, while leaf spot is remedied through neem oil, baking soda solutions, copper fungicide, or copper and pyrethrins.

Common Problems 

When the pH of the soil creeps above 7.0, Virginia sweetspire is prone to developing chlorosis. This results in a lack of chlorophyll, which in turn results in leaves that lose their color and fade. Eventually, the leaves turn yellow and die. Severe cases can kill the plant. To reverse this problem, it’s important to make the soil more acidic. Work in a bit of pelleted sulfur or organic matter, such as sawdust or leaves.

III. Types of Virginia Sweetspire

Several popular cultivars of Virginia Sweetspire are available, including:

  • Itea virginica ‘Henry’s Garnet’: This option has larger flowers and better autumn color than the species variety.
  • I. virginica ‘Little Henry’: This cultivar is a dwarf version, growing to only about two feet tall. It has better flower and fall foliage colors than the species.
  • I. virginica ‘Merlot’: This is another dwarf, growing to about three feet. It has a very deep red autumn color.
  • I. virginica ‘Sarah Eve’: The flowers have white petals with pink pedicels, giving the appearance of a pink flower. It has dark green foliage with a purplish cast and grows four to six feet tall and wide.

IV. Uses and Benefits 

Due to its thick root structure, Virginia Sweetspire is an excellent choice for erosion control. 

Its showy flowers, fragrance, and ability to attract pollinators make it a valuable choice for most gardens. 

Its edible seeds attract songbirds while the racemes create a perfect environment for butterflies.

Woodland gardens provide the most ideal growing conditions, as the higher surrounding foliage provides part shade to dappled sunlight as well as plenty of humus. 

The white flower color creates an attractive contrast to the greens and browns of this setting.

Another advantage of this deciduous shrub is the long blooming period and high adaptability. 

The paired erosion control and ability to grow in standing water make this a perfect choice for areas prone to flood. 

Meanwhile, it’s also fire-resistant, making it a plant type that can survive just about every disaster your garden might suffer.

irginia Sweetspire (Itea virginica) Details

Common name Itea, Virginia Sweetspire, Virginia Sweet Spire, Virginia Willow
Botanical name Itea virginica
Plant type Native Plant
Hardiness zone 5a, 5b, 6a, 6b, 7a, 7b, 8a, 8b, 9a, 9b
Growth rate Medium
Harvest time Fall
Height 4 ft. 0 in. - 8 ft. 0 in.
Width 4 ft. 0 in. - 8 ft. 0 in.
Sunlight Dappled Sunlight (Shade through upper canopy all day)
Soil condition High Organic Matter
Flower color White
Leaf color Brown/Copper