A Great North Carolina Native
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 www.ncsu.edu/jcraulstonarboretum.
All photos by Todd Lasseigne