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Sweet Spires in the Breeze

Versatile shrub is a pollinator magnet

MAY 2022

by Paula Steers Brown, Contributing Columnist

If you are not acquainted with the native shrub Virginia sweetspire, you may come to appreciate its wonderful adaptability, especially in today’s perplexing climate extremes.

Itea in the spring.

Itea virginica thrives in the wetlands of the East Coast from planting zones 5 to 9, but can also adapt to drought, once established, and performs well in sun or shade. It attracts desirable pollinators who love its nectar and habitat, but is uninviting to pesky deer.

Fringy, white blooms, like tassels, shoot out exuberantly in all directions starting in May, emitting a sweet fragrance for which the spires are named. The shrub’s lustrous green leaves turn striking red in a dramatic and long-lasting fall display, so that its ornamental value is prized in the landscape.


This stalwart native has long beautified difficult, moist areas, such as the margins of streams or ponds, where it grows 3- to 5-feet high in rounded or arching habit. Where soil is slow to drain, in rough terrain and even in ditches, sweetspire excels, making it a good choice for rain gardens and managing runoff. The shrub is quite versatile in the landscape, looking lovely in informal settings such as at the edge of woodlands, but is equally handsome in sunny mass plantings and mixed borders.

One of sweetspire’s traits is its tendency to sucker, making it ideal for naturalizing a bank, for example, and helping deter erosion. When given room to spread, it easily colonizes and can work well as a shrubby groundcover. When left alone, it becomes more wide than tall over time, expanding more in sun and good soil. So, if you use the shrub in mixed plantings, snip off unwanted root shoots that pop up to keep it in bounds.

Some gardeners welcome these divisions, but opinions also are divided, as nurseries’ online customer comments reveal. Some buyers do not want to lift a spade after the initial planting, fearing that sweetspire will crowd their other plants. Other gardeners consider this quality a plus for versatility and economy — the latter group enjoys this easy form of propagation, best done in autumn.


Several modern cultivars of Virginia sweetspire are improvements on the species for habit, floral display and vivid color. The one most available in nurseries is Henry’s Garnet, which grows 4- to 5-feet high. As the name suggests, the leaves turn a garnet red-purple in fall. The colorful foliage persists until temperatures drop below 15 to 20 degrees so that the shrub is semi-evergreen. Its showy 6-inch-long flower clusters drape luxuriously over dark green leaves.

Little Henry, at 2- to 3-feet high and wide, the dwarf form of Henry’s Garnet, is another outstanding cultivar and a great choice for the smaller garden. Try it as a low ornamental hedge or along a walkway. In autumn, its leaves turn fiery shades of red and orange that rival even the color of burning bush.

Another popular dwarf form, but slightly larger at 3- to 4-feet high is Merlot. Its persistent wine-red foliage and hardiness to zone 5 make this mounding shrub especially beautiful in mass plantings.

Eco-friendly sweetspire hosts native bees and butterflies, enhancing the garden. Plant this award-winner so hummers and humans will happily mingle, attracted to these spires so sweet.