I must be selective in the kinds of shrubs and trees I add to my landscape. Very simply: I don’t have the room. Like the village matchmaker, Yente, in Fiddler on the Roof, I match the plant with my landscape, paying particular attention to sun exposure, drainage, and room to grow. I also consider its maintenance requirements, particularly water, fertilizer, pruning, and pests. As a tough-love gardener, I have no tolerance for needy, wimpy plants.
To satisfy one of my New Year’s resolutions (also a promise to my wife), I am curbing my impulse plant purchases to only those plants that meet my requirements: offer more than one season of interest, provide sustenance to pollinators and other wildlife, and require minimal upkeep.
Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica) checks all of my boxes. Native from south Jersey (people not native to the Garden State refer to it as southern New Jersey) to south Florida, Virginia sweetspire can be found in moist forests and along the banks of streams, rivers, and lakes. Despite its preference for these habitats, this blue-collar native will thrive in drier locations in full sun to part shade.
Why do I grow it? I’m delighted you asked. This deciduous small to large shrub has a spreading, irregular moundlike habit with leaves that remain attractive throughout the growing season. It can reach a height of 3 to 6 ft., with an even greater spread as it produces suckers from its extensive root system. As it colonizes open spaces with new plants, it will shade out and suppress marauding weeds. In April and May, Virginia sweetspire produces a high-octane display of showy, spikey white fragrant flowers that dangle from the tips of its drooping branches. These nectar-rich flowers are attractive to bees and butterflies. After the flowers are fertilized, the capsules that form contain seeds that are relished by birds. In the fall, the leaves turn brilliant yellow, orange, and red, which lasts for several weeks.
Virginia sweetspire has caught the attention of plant breeders, who’ve developed a number of cultivars described in HGIC 1080, Virginia sweetspire. My favorite is ‘Henry’s Garnet’: a beefy 4 ft. high shrub that produces six-inch long flowers and breathtaking dark reddish-purple fall color.
Experience has taught me that Virginia sweetspire thrives in mass plantings, rain gardens, and on the edges of creeks and streams. Locate this shrub in a prominent area of your landscape where it will benefit you and the other inhabitants of your landscape.