Sweetspire, a Great North Carolina Native
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Virginia sweetspire, Itea virginica, has the characteristics we all look for when we hear the word “native.” Easy to establish, sweetspire is insect and disease resistant and drought tolerant. It has great leaf and flower color and works well in the naturalized sections of the urban landscape. This deciduous shrub is considered homegrown, not just in North Carolina but from the pine barrens of New Jersey to the Florida wetlands and west to Missouri.
Sweetspire produces white, fragrant flowers in May or June on racemes from 3- to 6-inches long. It flowers on the previous season’s wood, so prune immediately after the blooms fade. Fall color is superb when the green foliage, which is oblong and slightly serrated, turns to hues of yellow, orange, crimson and purple and remains on the plant until December. One drawback is its tendency to spread. A mature plant might only be 3 to 5 feet in height but will spread up to 10 feet in width. This tendency to take up space makes this a perfect choice for mass plantings in tough locations such as slopes or hillsides where we would frequently use junipers. Sweetspire can handle plenty of sun but will develop a thinner canopy in light shade. Though this plant tolerates dry sites, it prefers moist, fertile soil.
Look for some of the nursery selections such as ‘Henry’s Garnet’ and ‘Little Henry’ that have a more restrained growing pattern. These selections will have the characteristics noted above but the spread will be limited to 1 1/2 times the height of the specimen. Both can be seen at the JC Raulston Arboretum (JCRA) at NC State University. If you would like to compare additional but perhaps less common sweetspire cultivars, the JCRA also retains ‘Longspire’, ‘Merlot’ and ‘Shirley’s Compact’ within its collections. The JCRA is located at 4301 Beryl Road in Raleigh; Web address is jcra.ncsu.edu.