Prepared by Karen Russ, HGIC Horticulture Specialist, Clemson University. (New 09/04. Images added 5/07.)
Virginia Sweetspire (Itea virginica) is one of the most brilliant shrubs of the fall garden. Native from New Jersey to eastern Texas, it thrives throughout South Carolina. While it thrives in moist soils, it will adapt to even dry conditions if given plenty of water during its first year while becoming established. Virginia Sweetspire will grow well in either sun or shade, although it is most attractive where it receives at least 6 hours of sun.
Virginia sweetspire in bloom in May.
Janet Scott, ©2007 HGIC, Clemson Extension
Sweetspire usually grows three to five feet tall, although it may be taller and leggier in moist or shaded areas. Plants have a denser, more attractive habit when grown in sunnier sites. The form is typically arching and spreading. Plants spread readily by suckering, especially in moist sites. Mass plantings are usually more attractive than individual plants.
Sweetspire transplants easily from containers. Growth rate is medium to fast especially in moist soil.
Small, white, sweetly scented flowers appear on four to six inch long bottle-brush like flower clusters in May or June. Depending on the cultivar, they may be held erect, or drape gracefully over the foliage. When planted in full sun, flowering is abundant and showy. Flowers last for several weeks and are followed by light tan seed heads that persist into fall, providing contrast to the brilliant fall foliage.
The rich green summer leaves of the species change to a mixture of brilliant red, orange and yellow, while cultivars have been selected for a consistent deep burgundy fall color. Fall color changes occur from October to December, with later color on the coast. Peak color is in November. Color is most intense in sun, but bright even in shade. Sweetspire is semi-evergreen, and colored leaves will remain until temperatures fall below 15 to 20 °F.
'Henry's Garnet' Virginia sweetspire showing fall color
Karen Russ, ©2007 HGIC, Clemson Extension
Sweetspire is a versatile plant in the landscape. It is an excellent substitute for burning bush where a smaller or more pest resistant plant is needed. Mass plantings can be used as a high ground cover or shrub bank. Because of its suckering habit, sweetspire is useful for erosion control, particularly near streams.
Sweetspire has no significant pests or diseases.
Sweetspire can be easily propagated by home gardeners by cuttings, or division. Cuttings need about four weeks to root, and do so readily, with or without rooting hormone treatment. Root in a mix of three parts perlite and one part peat, kept moist, but not wet. Cuttings can be taken from May to September. Divisions of suckers can be done most easily in fall.
There are several named cultivars of Virginia Sweetspire, selected for improved fall color, form and size. The most commonly available are:
Other cultivars are occasionally seen.
A couple of related species are well worth exploring.
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