A Gardening Journal

The Best Season Ever: Dwarf Virginia Sweetspire

Itea virginica Little Henry 092613 640

 

Almost no hardy plant other than Itea provides a display of Fall foliage lasting, literally, all Fall. This picture from late September shows my colony already turning burgundy. Even though Winter's December 22 arrival is just two weeks away, the last leaves—more colorful than ever—are still there. That's three months of beauty, and without my having to do a thing.

 

Itea virginica Little Henry last leaves 112415 640

 

There's another show to come, and it lasts all Winter: Many of the bare stems display seriously colorful bark all on their own. Take a look, below, at another colony of Itea virginica 'Little Henry' that is larger and older. I visited it yesterday. The last of the showy Fall leaves are still dancing at the stem tips. 

 

Itea virginica Little Henry Aronow overall 10715 640

 

When I looked beyond the leaves to the stems themselves, I could see that a different display was also in progress: Although the older stems—the thickest ones—have bark that is ho-hum gray, the younger stems—the more slender ones—are bright green. 

 

Itea virginica Little Henry Aronow bases of stems 10715 640

 

Many of the young stems have arisen right from the ground. No surprise, there: Itea slowly forms expanding colonies by sending up shoots directly from the roots. And those new shoots are also the colorful ones making this cheering "Green Is Great" display. If the colony is displaying this amount of new growth on its own, would there be even more with the right encouragement? What landscape in Winter wouldn't welcome more green? What gardener wouldn't?

 

Itea virginica Little Henry Aronow stem bases closer 10715 640

 

In the picture below, you can see that other green stems have emerged from the thicker gray stems. They are side branches, in other words. Yes, they're green—but the price of retaining them is also to keep the boring gray branches that bear them. 

 

Itea virginica Little Henry new side stem is green too 120715 640

 

Young branches are sun-sensitive, but attractively so. They emerge all green, but as their tips become high enough to reach through some of the foliage from surrounding stems, the increased sunlight turns their bark burgundy. 

 

Itea virginica Little Henry Aronow stem middle fingers 10715 640

 

The tips of the clump's tallest stems, then, receive more sun than any others in the colony. They are the darkest.

 

Itea virginica Little Henry last leaves 112415 640

 

Below, a long-shot of three stems. The lengthy lower sections are as green as any asparagus, whereas the upper portions become more and more burgundy.

 

Itea virginica Little Henry cut stems top to bottom 120715 640

 

The left stem is much longer than the other two:over three feet. It had emerged directly from the ground, while the other two were side stems of old gray-barked branches. The ground-emerging stem needed to elongate a lot more before its tip received enough sun to begin darkening, and so—happily for viewers—it has a much longer stretch of lovely green bark.

 

For the best display of the long green stems, then, encourage new stems that emerge from the ground. To clear the stage for them, cut off any gray-barked stems even though, yes, this means sacrificing their shorter green-barked side stems. See both "How to handle it" boxes, below, for details.

 

In 2016, I'll begin training my colony of 'Little Henry' so that its Winter display of green stems is as lively as possible. Stay tuned.

 

 

Here's how to grow this four-season shrub:

 

Latin Name

Itea virginica 'Little Henry'; also sold as 'Sprich'

Common Names

Dwarf Virginia sweetspire, dwarf Virginia willow.

Family

Iteaceae, the sweetspire family.

What kind of plant is it?

Hardy deciduous shrub.

Hardiness

Zones 5 - 9.

Habit

Multistemmed and slowly suckering, with gracefully arching stems that side-branch sparingly, and only towards their tips. See the second "How to handle it" box, below, for how to help the shrub maximize the proportion of stems that are less branchy, more wand-like, and (happily) also dramatically more colorful.

Rate of Growth

Steady.

Size in ten years

A colony four to six feet wide and two to four feet high.

Texture

Dense in full sun, but thanks to the branches' curved tips and the pendulous flowering racemes, never heavy. Looser in more and more shade, with the danger of becoming gappy and spindly.

Grown for

its four-season appeal: fresh foliage in Spring, strikingly long pendulous spikes of starry white flowers in early Summer, an extraordinarily long display of Fall foliage (for me, late September through late December) and, with a bit of intervention from you, an exciting display of green-and-burgundy twigs all Winter.

 

its ease of establishment and its persistence thereafter: Itea plants, transplants, and divides easily, and is accommodating when it comes to exposure (full sun to part shade), soil (almost anything that is reasonably moisture-retentive), and moisture (average to out-and-out damp and occasionally saturated). Colonies can toddle along under their own steam for many years without further attention: Itea doesn't seem susceptible to any serious pests or diseases, flowers well without needing the encouragement of pruning, and is usually bypassed by browsers. But the shrub achieves a new level of beauty if it receives a yearly grooming. See both "How to handle it" boxes, below.  

 

its tidy and consistent habit: Although 'Little Henry' can colonize, at a casual glance it doesn't look wild even as it goes wild. As long as all of the colony enjoys similar exposure and conditions, it tends to form an orderly broad mound of stems, without gaps or too-tall rogue stems. 

Flowering season

Late Spring to early Summer: May in the southeastern United States, but into June in New England.

Color combinations

The white flowers, burgundy and green stems, and green foliage go with everything. I let strict color harmony go on vacation in the Fall, enjoying all colors however they mix it up in the garden and out in the world. So, for me, the bright Fall foliage of Itea goes with everything, too.

 

Nonetheless, you could select partner plants that will, on closer inspection, call attention to the flowers' soft green-yellow calyces and the very newest (and, therefore highest) portions of the stems—their bright burgundy tips—by enthustiastically presenting only these same colors. If you're particular enough to attempt such liaisons, you'll also decide that contrasting colors such as blue, red, orange, or pink are unnecessary and even disturbing. See "Plant Partners," below.

Plant partner

Itea virginica 'Little Henry' has the potential to elicit both close-at-hand study as well pleasing "walking by" glances every day of the year. Especially if the grooming introduced in the second "How to handle it" box appeals to you, your Itea need never have an off-day, let alone the months of downtime grace we extend to plants whose annual peaks are fewer or more ephemeral.

 

True, any plant with sustained year-round interest may well be counted on to provide it just so that other plants nearby can concentrate on their fleeting shows of flowers, say, or Fall color—and then collapse into a sorry "resting" phase, or disappear below ground. The year-round performance of the Itea would be the failsafe distraction, the foolproof quotient of charm and "Yes, I'm doing my best today just for you, dear garden visitor" energy that will make up for nearby stretches of exposed dirt or bedraggled post-flowering foliage. But the seasons of the yearly cycle of Itea—Spring foliage, early-Summer flowers, Summer foliage, Fall foliage, Winter bark—flow together without a break, without downtime. The display is always switched to "On." The reality of the interaction with sometimes-faltering partner plants is likely to be the reverse: The bare patches and exhausted gaps between their scattered peaks will be the distraction from the Itea.

 

One solution is to give Itea a setting with a solid baseline of year-round appeal, and minimal variation from it. Then, the seasonal cycle of Itea is the changing show, and will be heightened by the very constancy of its context. These same seasonal changes also call attention to the timeless appeal of the static surroundings—provided they are well done, of course.

 

Here are a couple of scenarios. For a medium-sized bed between a walkway and a brick wall: Establish a non-variegated evergreen ivy on the wall to provide a green backdrop for the changing foliage, flowers, and bark of Itea. Establish dense, low, mounding evergreens at the front or sides, such as Buxus 'Morris Midget' or Ilex x 'Rock Garden'. Carpet the rest with river stones or cocoa hulls. If the location has shady portions, and those areas of the the soil can be particularly well-draining, try adding Polypodium virginianum, which is fully evergreen and never seems to have a bad hair day.

 

By a pond whose level remains fairly constant, plant as large and deep a swath of Itea at the water's edge as you and your site can muster. To one side (so as not to block the water view) plant a single clump of another shrubby water-lover—this time, one of the rare ones that are evergreen—Ilex glabra 'Nigra'.

 

Because of its potential for a good Winter display of green stems, Itea can triumph in the company of what might otherwise be a surfeit of deciduous or herbaceous partners. As in the pictures above, the green stems are effective simply by poking up through the accumulated Fall foliage that has become caught. What about underplanting Itea with Galium odoratum? Its frothy stems are bright green in season and, through the Fall at least, form an effective shag rug of brown and tan.

 

Because Itea tolerates part shade, it can be the underplanting for the larger plants that provide it. What about a bank of Itea beneath the limbs of a huge oak? Trees in the Quercus genus, as a rule, provide just the dappled shade and easy-to-underplant root runs that shade-tolerant plants love. Another opportunity would be to use Itea beneath a grove of ornamental trees. If you had the energy to select for the green Itea stems, the shrub would be an evergreen underplanting, and could partner overstory trees that are otherwise fully deciduous. Someday, perhaps I'll plant a grove of Heptacodium, whose shaggy exfoliating bark is a show all Winter. I have already planted Pseudocydonia sinensis, but it is growing up through an intentional gap in my high hedge of Ilex opaca; if yours were freestanding, a clump of Itea near its base would be the perfect "corsage" year-round.

 

Lastly, the specific colors of Itea could inform your choices. The green-yellow bases of the flowers call out for a partner that emphasizes that same hue. I'll make suggestions in June, when Itea will be in flower. And what about the burgundy tips of the stems, which will be displayed so well in Winter? What else is burgundy when the weather is cold? Here are three possibilities: Needles of the slightly less-hardy and, therefore, less evergreen form of Cryptomeria japonica, 'Araucarioides', turn a shade between burgundy and mahogany for the Winter. The shiny, dense foliage of Euonymus carnosus changes to a dramatic burgundy and lasts for months. Yes, it eventually drops, but for many weeks could echo the color of the Itea twigs. The ever"green" leaves of Photinia davidiana 'Prostrata' change to burgundy for the Winter, and remain in perfect condition right through to Spring, when they change back to green. 

Where to use it in your garden

Its reliability, fairly regular growth habit, talent at looking presentable and even smashing without much in the way of maintenance, and steady but not aggressive colonizing make 'Little Henry' effective en masse as a groundcover either in full sun or amid the trunks of larger shrubs or trees that provide only a light, dappled shade. See "Plant Partners," above, for some of these overstory companions. The shrub's easy ability at filling in also makes it a natural solution for odd-shaped interstitial areas of almost any size, such as strips between a building and a sidewalk or driveway.

 

But the subtle details of the early-Summer flowers, Fall foliage, and colorful bark that is revealed from late Fall to Spring also suggest that 'Little Henry' be used as a specimen ornamental, not just a large-scale problem solver for spots that might, literally, be drive-by. At or near the front of a bed, this shrub's diverse talents can be appreciated with the close attention they deserve. To kneel before 'Little Henry' is to treat yourself as much as pay respect to a shrub that very much deserves it.

 

Itea has such a tolerance for moisture that it can be used alongside fresh water, or in low ground that becomes saturated after storms. Itea is a natural, then, for rain gardens.

Culture

Full sun to part shade, in almost any soil with reasonable ability to retain moisture.

How to handle it: The Basics

Plant at any time the soil is workable, as long as you can provide enough water for establishment. This shrub forms colonies by producing new shoots from the roots. It's also impressively tolerant of high-moisture soils, whether they arise from adjacent fresh-water ponds or streams, or the site is low and receives run-off, or the soil is somewhat heavy and, therefore, drains poorly. So, you don't need to fuss to provide soil of the "well-drained but moisture retentive" fantasy.

 

If you're planting or transplanting late in Fall or early Winter, when severe weather might arrive on short notice, don't hesitate to plant Itea several inches more deeply than it had been growing. The depth will ensure more moisture as well as greater protection from whatever nasty conditions may soon be upon you and your garden. The Itea clump will send out new stems that will find their own best soil level, while the current and now partly-buried stems will probably root along their newly underground portions.

 

In my experience in almost-Zone 7, Itea colonies usually develop a few dead stem tips over the Winter, not so much from cold-induced die-back (the shrub is hardy to Zone 5, after all), but just because this is the shrub's habit. As new leaves emerge in Spring, the lifeless stems will be obvious and easy to clip. Resist doing any other pruning until after flowering is through in late Spring or early Summer. But then consider the focused and even zen-like intervention, stem by stem, explored in the second "How to handle it" box, below.

 

Particularly fastidious gardeners may want to clip off the faded flower spikes but, because a happy Itea can flower profusely, there would be too many of them to worry about in a mass planting. If you are keeping a single colony in training as a perfect little grove of green stems (again, in the second "How to handle it" box, below), you might also want to deadhead. The rest of us are just fine without it.

How to handle it: Another option—or two!

The overall growth habit of 'Little Henry' is contained and orderly, and the shrub flowers very well when left to grow free-range. For too-busy gardeners or in more naturalistic settings, the shrub needs little attention other than to clip off an occasional dead stem or tip in mid-Spring; their lack of leaves will highlight them amid the new foliage of other stems.

 

For those who can allow themselves to look more closely, even though they know that added gardening time and labor will be the result, the coloring of the young stems (see "Quirks," below) is too bright and unusual not to explore. Remember that formation of each year's crop of flowering racemes begins the year before, at the tips of that season's new growth. Plus, while older branches continue to produce new (and fully colorful) side stems that will flower the next season, the bark of those older stems soon becomes miscellaneously grey, and is a distraction from the display of young green-barked stems that have arisen directly from the ground.

 

The goal, then, is to prune as soon as possible after a given season's flowering is through, so that resultant new growth—which will have the desirable green bark—still has enough of the current growing season to initiate bud formation for flowering the following season. And the target of that pruning is those older branches whose bark has matured to gray. Depending on how far south you and your garden are, this means that you and your colony of 'Little Henry' should have a standing date each year any time from May to mid-June.

 

Cut gray-barked branches right at ground level, then, after flowering is done. Itea produces new stems directly from the roots, so there is no need to preserve the stubs of old branches. One happy consequence of such pruning is that it increases the proportion of stems in the colony that are too young to have produced many side stems. And without the distraction of the branchy older stems, these young, gracefully arching, wand-like stems that arise directly from the ground will predominate. 

 

The length of your growing season may affect how soon the bark of any given stem changes to gray. In Zone 5, the growing season is months shorter than in Zone 9, and it might take a given stem several years to mature to a gray-barked oldster. In warmer climates, would a given stem go gray (alas) by the end of its second year?

 

The amount of sun and shade your colony receives overall, let alone that received by individuals of these desirable first-year root sprouts, will also affect their proportion of burgundy and green. It's possible, as well, that this same proportion of sun and shade will interact with the length of your gardening season to affect how mature first-year roots sprouts can become before Fall. Would first-year root sprouts of colonies growing in full sun in Georgia reliably flower their second season, whereas those of a colony growing in part-shade in Massachusetts need another season to mature sufficiently and, so, wouldn't flower until their third? And if so, would "mature enough to flower" also mean (gulp) that their gorgeous young bark had had to become old and gray?

 

Oh, the suspense!

 

It could be worth it to plant several colonies of Itea throughout your garden, to see how these bark and flower displays change with different exposures. Further, when traveling to gardens in other climate zones, seek out Itea colonies—and, if possible, their proud owners—to determine how their experiences with this eccentric shrub differ. As is our own habit, we spend Christmas in greater Washington, DC, which is in the bosom of Zone 7; this year, I'll keep an eye out for Itea, to begin adding my own data. 

Quirks and special cases

The coloring of the bark that young stems of Itea virginica display Fall through early Spring is both eccentric and exciting. The bark at the very highest tips, plus whatever upper portions of the stems below that receive enough sun, is burgundy. Not so the bark of the lower portions of the stems. They are likely to experience a fair amount of shade throughout the season because those stems have arisen through and amid still-older stems in the colony that had been allowed to remain into the current year to produce the early-Summer flowers. This growing-in-the-shade bark is as bright green as that of any other hardy shrub or tree, and rivals that of Poncirus trifoliata and even Kerria japonica.

 

The result is that most young Itea stems are burgundy at the top and green at the bottom. Only new stems that have arisen from the roots at the perimeter of the colony are likely to experience sun top to bottom and, even then, only on the sunniest side of the colony; they might therefore be all burgundy. Colonies growing in shadier spots are likely to produce stems that are mostly or even entirely green even at the perimeter.

 

This bicolor display provides satisfying aesthetics, while its responsiveness to varying amounts of sun and shade lets the observant gardener (especially one that also wields a pair of hand pruners) conduct experiments of truly scientific rigor. See the second "How to handle it" box, above.

Downsides

None.

Variants

'Henry's Garnet' is only a bit larger than 'Little Henry': usually to three or four or five feet, not the three to five or six of the straight species. Its racemes can be six inches long. 'Merlot' is described as having appropriately deep-burgundy Fall foliage, and is as compact as 'Little Henry'.

 

'Shirley's Compact' is a true dwarf in all its parts, forming a congested mound of inch-long leaves on stems that manage a foot to eighteen inches high and two to three feet wide only after many years. The floral display is also congested: What are exciting dangling candles of flowers on the straight species and the other cultivars are tight near-balls of bloom as big as your fingertip.

 

My beds tend to be crowded with plants that are two feet high at the front, and ten to twenty feet tall at the back, so 'Shirley's Compact' would be swamped by July. Perhaps I can find room for it in one of my large troughs.

Availability

At nurseries and by mail.

Propagation

By division and by cuttings. Given that the species is native and, so, is likely to benefit from effective pollination, and few of us deadhead, it's surprising that we aren't cautioned about a lot of volunteer seedlings. I've never seen one. The named cultivars to date seem to be the result of natural emergence followed by discovery, not hybridization. The seeds are dust-fine, so could be challenging to handle. Or are very few of them fertile despite effective pollination?

Native habitat

Itea virginica is native from southern New Jersey to Florida, and as far west as Missouri and south to east Texas.

 
 
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