Virginia Sweetspire

Sweetly scented spires attract bees and butterflies

The Itea genus contains flowering shrubs and small trees, commonly called Virginia sweetspire, that bloom in spring or summer, depending on the variety. Long, tassel-like “spires” dense with small flowers are either held upright or dangle from slender, arching branches. The flowers are sweetly scented and attractive to bees, butterflies, and other pollinators. Capsular fruits have no ornamental value but do entice birds.

Itea is a genus of about 18 species that typically range from 3 to 12 feet tall and about 4 to 6 feet wide, but there are compact cultivars that stay under 3 feet and maintain a similar spread. Two cultivated varieties are I. virginica (Virginia willow, tassel-white), a deciduous native to the eastern U.S., and I. ilicifolia (holy-leaf sweetspire), a broadleaf evergreen variety. Evergreens have glossy, holly-like rich green leaves; deciduous varieties have dark green leaves that turn shades of red, purple, orange, or gold in autumn and tend to linger into winter. The thickly branched shrubs have an upright or mounded habit and are shown to best effect grouped or massed in foundation plantings or borders. Virginia willow is especially well suited to naturalistic settings as an understory shrub in woodland settings or a riparian shrub around ponds or along streams, as it spreads by suckering roots and will form dense colonies over time if allowed, which makes it an attractive option for stabilizing soil and combating erosion.

Tough and easy to grow, itea prefers full sun to part shade and average, medium to wet, well-drained soils that have an acidic pH of 5.0 to 6.5. The plant tolerates sandy, loamy, and clay soils, even those with poor drainage. Blooms and fall color will be best with at least some full sun.