virginia sweetspire

How To Grow and Care for Itea (Itea virginica)

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Itea is a native plant that puts on a great show in the garden while asking very little in terms of care and maintenance. With a combination of a great showy floral display and excellent, long-lasting fall color, this plant makes a wonderful garden shrub.

Read on to learn more about how to grow and care for this showy shrub.

What Is An Itea Shrub?

Itea virginica is a United States native plant that goes by a few different common names, including Tassel white, sweetspire, Virginia sweetspire, Virginia willow, Virginia tea, or just itea.

The Virginia sweetspire plant is a deciduous, multi-stemmed mound-shaped shrub of the Iteaceae family. It grows to a maximum height of about 8 feet (2.4 m), but typically stays 3 to 4 feet (0.9  to 1.2 m) tall and wide. This shrub will, however, spread by suckers to form a thicket if left to naturalize.

In nature, the species occurs in wet places along stream banks and watercourses in the southeast of the USA, where it is the only Itea species on the continent.

Virginia sweetspire shrubs are as popular for their fantastic fall foliage as they are for their showy hanging blossoms. The leaves are arranged alternately on graceful, downward curving branches.

The 2 to 4 inches (5 to 10 cm) long green leaves have finely toothed margins and change to beautiful shades of orange and red, or even purple in the fall. The plants keep their color for quite some time and these colorful leaves can persist well into the winter.

virginia sweetspire
Virginia sweetspire photo by Puddin Tain | Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Virginia Sweetspire Cultivars/ Varieties

‘Henry’s Garnet’ is an award-winning itea cultivar that is best known for its beautiful scarlet to purple fall colors. These plants grow to about 3 to 4 feet (0.9 to 1.2 m) tall and a little wider, and flower particularly profusely.

‘Saturnalia’ is also a compact variety that grows to 3 to 4 feet (0.9 to 1.2 m) tall. This cultivar is best known for its spectacular golden-orange fall colors that can persist right into the early winter months.

‘Long Spire’ is a cultivar that produces particularly impressive, elongated flower spikes of 8 to 10 (20 to 25 cm) inches long.

Itea Flowers

Itea shrubs flower really profusely in the early summer for a period of a few weeks. Although the individual flowers are just ½ an inch (13 mm) or so across, they occur in long-lasting 4 to 10 inch (10 to 25 cm) long hanging spikes.

The mildly fragrant cream-white flowers on these spikes open in succession from the base to the tip, further increasing the blooming time. Once flowering is complete, the fruits produced are small, cone-shaped capsules of about ¼ inch (6 mm) long.

How To Grow An Itea Shrub

Itea shrubs are quite easy to propagate and can be grown from softwood or greenwood cuttings. If growing from seed, surface-sown seeds set out in spring germinate most reliably. Perhaps the easiest way to get new plants is through division. Simply remove a sucker with a section of healthy roots and replant where you wish. (1)

This hardy plant grows in a variety of soil types and pHs. Although they can be grown in dry soils, they tolerate these conditions rather than thrive in them. For a really healthy plant, a moist, well-watered substrate is the way to go, even in poorly drained areas of the yard.

Don’t be shy about keeping Virginia sweetspire well-watered, they do enjoy a moist environment and are not easily affected by root rot. They are also tolerant of a variety of light conditions, but are best planted in an area of partial shade that receives a few hours of direct sunlight each day. These conditions are best for stimulating a good flowering and fall color display. (2)

Not only are these Virginia sweetspire bushes adaptable to a variety of soil, moisture, and light conditions, but a wide range of temperatures as well. These versatile plants grow well from USDA hardiness zone 9 right down to zone 5.

Care And Maintenance

Itea shrubs are both easy to grow and easy to maintain. These shrubs are fast-growing in the right conditions and may grow by a foot or two (0.3 to 0.6 m) over the course of a growing season.

With their habit of spreading by suckering, it might be necessary to remove these suckers from time to time to maintain a neat and manageable shrub that doesn’t leave its own space.

They are very tolerant of pruning and can be cut right down to about 2 feet (0.6 m) to rejuvenate after flowering. It is best to prune this shrub after blooming ends since these plants flower on the previous year’s growth.

Although not strictly necessary, the sweetspire plants may benefit from the addition of a slow-release fertilizer in the summer, after flowering. They are generally disease and pest-resistant and usually not on the menu for hungry deer.

Uses

Horticultural Uses

Itea is best allowed to keep its naturally graceful rounded shape. These plants do well in borders and are great for planting under larger trees where they can get at least a little sunshine.

Plant these deciduous shrubs in front of larger screening plants to add color and interest to a practical part of the garden.

One of the most useful features of this plant is its tolerance for moist, saturated parts of the yard, where few other plants will grow well.

Human Uses

Because of this plants spreading, suckering nature, colonizing can really help to stabilize erosion-prone areas like moist slopes and stream banks. The multiple stems and extensive root system that develops on plants allowed to naturalize really work well for holding the soil together for this purpose. (2)

Wildlife Uses

The mildly fragrant flowers of this bush attract pollinators like butterflies and hummingbirds. Bees, in particular, love working this plant. It is largely deer-resistant, although deer might take a bite out of just about any plant when really hungry.


FAQs

Conclusion

These showy and versatile native plants are especially well-suited for damp or swampy areas where other suitable shrubs are hard to find and can be grown across a wide range of hardiness zones.

The sweetspire plants are adaptable, however, and will do well just about anywhere you plant them in zones 5 to 9 provided you don’t let them stay too thirsty. They do tend to sucker, however, so the gardener will need to keep their eye on this if the plant is to be contained in a small space.

References

References List

(1) University Of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service. Landscape Shrubs: Sweetspire, Virginia Sweetspire (Itea virginica)

https://www.uaex.edu/yard-garden/resource-library/plant-database/shrubs/sweetspire.aspx

(2) Connor, K. Itea virginica L. In: Francis, John K. ed. 2004. Wildland shrubs of the United States and its Territories. 

https://www.srs.fs.fed.us/pubs/ja/2004/ja_2004_connor_006.pdf

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