A native throughout much of southern North America, Itea virginica (eye-TEE-ah, ver-JIN-ih-kah) owes much of its success to the wide USDA hardiness zone range it tolerates.
It belongs to the Iteaceae (formerly saxifragaceae) family and is known as tassel-white, Virginia sweetspire, and Virginia willow; with Henry’s garnet and little Henry being two of the most popular cultivars.
When purchasing from a nursery, little Henry will be the most common name to find it under.
The plant is characterized by its gracefully arching red to purple-stemmed branches, small white to cream flowers, and long-lasting autumnal colors lasting well into winter.
It attracts both birds and butterflies, has edible seeds, and tends to be very low-maintenance, making this an excellent native plant choice for gardens across the United States.
In late summer, the foliage color changes from dark green to vibrant oranges and reds.
When grown in partial shade, the fall foliage will last well into winter.
Itea Virginica Sweetspire Care
Size & Growth
This deciduous to semi-evergreen flowering shrub grows up to 8’ feet tall and has a foliage spread of up to 6’ feet in the right conditions.
Under normal conditions, this shrub with green leaves has a medium growth rate, although the amount of sunlight and exposure time may be modified to achieve the desired amount of growth.
This also goes for soil quality and moisture.
Flowering and Fragrance
In late spring to early summer, 4” inch racemes of flowers form.
The inflorescence tends to have a long bloom time, as the tiny star-shaped white flowers bloom from the base to the tip.
The fragrant flowers have a delicate scent attracting a wide range of insects and songbirds.
Light & Temperature
Virginia willow prefers partial shade or dappled sunlight.
However, ensuring it gets about four hours of full sun will result in more vibrant fall colors and better blooms.
It may also be adapted to full shade.
This plant is able to handle deep temperature drops as low as 5° degrees Fahrenheit (-15° C), giving it a range of USDA hardiness zones 5a through 9b.
Watering and Feeding
While the ideal conditions are wet soil with good drainage, Virginia Sweetspire can survive frequent standing water.
It requires occasional watering during droughts.
Despite being able to grow in clay soil, the shrub needs humus-rich soil for healthy growth.
You may use a balanced fertilizer for offsetting less-than-ideal conditions in the planting area.
Soil & Transplanting
Itea Virginica ‘Henry’s garnet’ favors slightly acidic soil with plenty of humus but will grow in a much wider range of soil conditions including clay, loamy, and sandy soil types.
A soil pH of 6.8 or less is best.
As this is a suckering plant, the easiest way to transplant is to dig up individual pups in early spring and relocate them.
This will produce clones of the parent plant but is a viable alternative to propagation.
Potted plants should be transplanted after the first year for optimum growth.
It should be noted this plant tends to be rather scraggly on its own, but transplanting individual stems closer together makes fuller shrub borders.
Grooming and Maintenance
Pruning should be performed after blooming. In colder climates, some minor damage may occur during winter.
Be sure to prune off any dead branches after thaw to ensure healthy growth.
When grown in moist, humus soil, this plant needs very little maintenance.
Be sure to water occasionally during drought conditions.
How To Propagate Virginia Sweetspire
Tassel-white is relatively easy to propagate from seeds collected in late summer to early fall.
As this is a suckering plant, it also may be grown from semi-hardwood cuttings collected at the same time as seeds.
To harvest and germinate from seed:
- Remove the seeds from their capsule and store in sealed, refrigerated containers until spring.
- Sow thinly in flats and keep in a greenhouse.
- Transplant to larger pots once germinated.
For the best growth, keep young plants in a container for the first year before transplanting.
You will know when they are ready once the roots begin growing up or down the pot.
To grow from trimmings, select the tip of a healthy stem once spring growth has concluded.
Ideal stems are flexible at the tip, but firm and woody by the base and no flowers.
Clip approximately 6” inches from the tip, stripping off any leaves from the bottom half with a sharp knife.
Dip the base into a powdered root hormone and plant 3″ to 4” inches deep in an equal mix of peat, perlite, and sand.
Mist the leaves twice per day until the new roots are established, then keep the soil moist until the plant is well-established and ready to transplant outdoors.
Virginia Willow Pest or Disease Problems
Itea Virginica is a hardy species, resistant to most pests.
Deer tend to leave it alone.
Be warned, it attracts pollinating insects, so it may not be an appropriate choice for those with bee allergies.
Suggested Itea Virginica Sweetspire Uses
Due to its thick root structure, Virginia Sweetspire is an excellent choice for erosion control.
Its showy flowers, fragrance, and ability to attract pollinators make it a valuable choice for most gardens.
Its edible seeds attract songbirds while the racemes create a perfect environment for butterflies.
Woodland gardens provide the most ideal growing conditions, as the higher surrounding foliage provides part shade to dappled sunlight as well as plenty of humus.
The white flower color creates an attractive contrast to the greens and browns of this setting.
Another advantage of this deciduous shrub is the long blooming period and high adaptability.
The paired erosion control and ability to grow in standing water make this a perfect choice for areas prone to flood.
Meanwhile, it’s also fire-resistant, making it a plant type that can survive just about every disaster your garden might suffer.