Virginia Sweetspire Brightens Early Summer’s Shadows

Itea virginica ‘Henry’s Garnet’

The Virginia Sweetspires (Itea virginica) that I planted here and there on our floodplain are in glorious full bloom right now. This lovely native shrub occurs in swamps, wet woodlands, and along wooded streams throughout the southeastern United States. It doesn’t like high mountains, but you can find it growing in woods from the Coastal Plain to the low mountains, and most certainly in the Piedmont.

When we moved to our five acres over two decades ago, I immediately realized that our floodplain would be excellent habitat for this native beauty. As has often happened here, the spring after I planted my purchased shrubs, I discovered a specimen growing right along the creek bank. The species had been here already; I just didn’t notice it until it bloomed.

But no matter. I’ve come to realize that you can’t have too much Virginia Sweetspire growing in the understory of moist woodlands. The cultivar I grow — Henry’s Garnet — is known for its exceptionally long flower clusters — up to six inches long — and its exquisite deep purple-red fall color that persists in my yard often until January.

The long white flower clusters (racemes) are mildly fragrant, and they attract every pollinator in the neighborhood from native bees, beetles, and flies to gorgeous butterflies. When the shrub is in full bloom, the white glow of all those flowers lights up the deepening shadows of the summer canopy of ashes, maples, and oaks. Here’s a close-up of the flowers:

Virginia Sweetspire flowers

This native — also sometimes called Virginia Willow (although it’s not in the willow family) — tends to sucker, which means it sends up shoots from the roots to create almost a thicket of Sweetspire. However, that’s a good thing, because this shrub is considered delicious by deer everywhere. I protected my newly planted shrubs by surrounding them with wire cages too tall for deer necks to reach over. My shrubs are now about eight feet tall inside the cages.

I recently took one cage off a shrub to see what would happen. The deer heavily browsed every bit of the shrub they could reach, but its height prevented them from eating all of it. And now gazillions of root sprouts are appearing at the base of the shrub. I’m hoping that eventually the thicket of Virginia Sweetspire will be too wide for the deer to fully penetrate. Time will tell.

As for the specimen that was naturally growing along the creek, it seems to have disappeared. I think a combination of increased deer predation due to the destruction of nearby forests plus some spectacular floods were more than the poor little plant could survive.

But the Itea virginica ‘Henry’s Garnet’ plants are so much showier in bloom and in fall foliage than the native species that I don’t feel too bad about losing the pioneer plant that was here first.

Once it is established, this shrub is quite drought-tolerant. And a number of new cultivars besides Henry’s Garnet are now commercially available. If you’ve got a moist, low spot that gets a half day’s worth of sun, you can’t go wrong with this native shrub. Your summer shadows will be lightened by its snowy blooms, and your autumn understory will glow with garnet leaves until winter weather strips the forest of all memories of summer green.

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