Itea virginica is one of our most beautiful and versatile native shrubs. Its romantic common name, “Virginia Sweetspire,” is a good one, because this shrub is a sweet addition to the landscape year-round.
Itea (pronounced eye-tee-uh) grows in a loose mounding form, reaching 4-5 feet tall and wide in a few years, with gently arching branches. In mid-June, after most trees and shrubs have finished blooming, Itea is just starting its summer show. Spikes of white flowers 4 to 6 inches long cover the shrub, arching away from the deep-green leaves on long stems.
The star-shaped flowers begin opening from the stem to the tip, and last several weeks. And they are sweet! The elegant fragrance is not over-powering, but definitely carries in sultry June air. The flowers are loaded with nectar and butterflies flock to them. When the flowers fade, birds will feast on the seeds that remain all winter.
Itea is native to swampy meadows and wet woodlands from New Jersey to Florida, and west as far as southern Illinois, but it does very well in more northern gardens. It can thrive in full sun or part shade, and is surprisingly drought tolerant given its swampy origins. It is winter hardy in Zones 5-9, and is not attractive to deer or rabbits.
Throughout the summer, the foliage remains fresh and glossy, so Itea looks great in full sun as a hedge or foundation plant. But because of its shade tolerance, it can even replace pachysandra, vinca, or ivy under trees.
And have we mentioned fall color? Itea is known for its gorgeous fall foliage, turning various shades of red, orange, and purple while holding onto its leaves until snowfall. Cultivars called “Henry’s Garnet” and “Merlot” are specifically marketed for their brilliance in the fall landscape. Fall color is best in full sun, but it’s still impressive in part shade. We frequently recommend Itea as a native alternative to invasive burning bush.
So, Itea is carefree, a hedge or foundation plant, an under-tree plant, has showy and fragrant flowers, offers nectar for butterflies and seeds for birds, grows in sun or shade, and has fabulous fall color – we think that’s pretty sweet!