In this day and age we’ve come to expect a lot from our plants. They’ve got to have great flowers, they’ve got to have good clean foliage, fall color of course, and they really should take care of themselves. We don’t want to have to baby them.
Itea, Sweetspire, is one of those plants that have all of the above and more. It grows in sun or shade, the flowers smell great and it is well behaved. It does not bully and is not promiscuous.
Itea virginica is native to the southeastern US, growing along stream banks in moist soil. Cultivated varieties are plentiful so we’ve selected our favorites for discussion.
‘Henry’s Garnet’ – White flowers along 6” spikes are lightly fragrant, blooming in June and July.Deciduous leaves are green with coppery new growth and amazing bright red in fall. Leaves stay on the plant into December.Compact growth, matures at 3-4’ tall and 4-6’ wide. It can grow larger given time.
‘Little Henry’ – White flowers in shorter 3-4” spikes with light sweet scent in June & July. Fall foliage is red to purple. Grows to 3’ x 3’ with dense compact habit.
‘Merlot’ – Flowers are the same as ‘Little Henry’. Leaves are all green in summer with darker red and purple color in fall. Grows to 3-4’ tall.
Itea illicifolia Holly Sweetspire – Native to Western China
This is an excellent form of Itea. Small light green to white flowers are borne on 6-12” long racemes that remind me of a many-chrystalled drapey chandelier. Flowers bloom in July & August. Dark glossy leaves are spiny like holly but not quite as sharp. It is reliably evergreen.
Grows to be 6-12’ tall & wide. Prefers a sunny to partly sunny spot with well-drained moist soil that is protected from desiccating winds during winter. Hardy in Zone 8-9 (should be okay in Portland if protected from icy east winds).
Genus: Itea – i-TEE-uh - The Greek word for ‘willow’.
Common Name: Sweetspire
Origin: Northeastern Asia & Eastern North America
Characteristics: Ten species of shrub or small trees make up the Itea genus. Flowers are small, white, cream or green-white carried in racemes or spikes. Some flowers are scented.
Bloom is in summer. Leaves are deciduous or evergreen, alternate. On deciduous varieties leaves change color in autumn, often turning scarlet to burgundy. Branches have chambered pith.
Size: Varies per species, some mature at 3-5’ tall & wide, others grow to be 8-10’ tall.
Culture: Very adaptable plant. Prefers sun & moist fertile soil, but grows well in shade, tolerates drought, and adapts to differing pH levels.