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What is a Virginia Sweetspire?

Terrie Brockmann
Terrie Brockmann

Gardeners often grow the American native Virginia sweetspire as an attractive hedge plant. The main branches grow upright and then arch gracefully, giving it a rounded appearance that makes it a fine specimen plant as well. Most growers value it for its showy, finger-like masses of creamy white flowers. Usually in the autumn, it puts on a colorful show when its deep green leaves turn red to reddish-purple. The shrub generally lacks winter interest because it is deciduous, meaning that it drops its leaves during the winter.

The Virginia sweetspire belongs to the Grossulariaceae, the gooseberry or currant family. Botanists label it as Itea virginica. I. virginica is the only species native in the U.S. of the Itea genus. Sometimes people refer to it simply as sweetspire or sweet spire.

Woman with a flower
Woman with a flower

Like its close relative Itea ilicifolia, Virginia sweetspire has flowers that are borne in dense racemes up to 6 inches (15 cm) long. A raceme is an elongated stalk bearing clusters of individual flowers. The Itea ilicifolia flowers droop like tails from fireworks, but the Virginia sweetspire racemes are more erect. The cultivar 'Henry's Garnet' has larger flowers, but the typical sweetspire plant's individual flowers are about 0.5 inches (9 mm) in diameter.

The leaves of the Virginia sweetspire plants generally are elliptic to oblong shaped and finely toothed. Although they may be light green in the spring, they mature to a dark green in the summer. In the autumn, they put on a colorful show. Like most of the Itea plants, usually the leaves are up to 4 inches (10 cm) long.

Typically, the Virginia sweetspire shrub reaches heights of 5 to 10 feet (1.5 to 3 m) with a spread of 5 to 10 feet (1.5 to 3 m) across. 'Henry's Garnet' is small and generally grows to be about 3 to 4 feet (1 to 1.2 m) tall and 6 feet (2 m) wide. It is native to parts of the eastern U.S. and thrives in climates similar to that. On the United States Department of Agriculture's hardiness chart, it is in zones six through nine. Often it thrives in temperate climates where the soil is moist but not soggy.

In southern Texas, gardeners plant the Virginia sweetspire for erosion control. Many gardeners use it in native plant gardens. Since it may thrive in partial shade or full sun, many landscapers use it at the edge of woodlots and along fence lines. In June and July, it delights its owners with masses of its fragrant flowers.

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