Collector’s Choice: Itea

When I planted my first garden in Kingston, Washington, I included Itea virginica ‘Henry’s Garnet’ (shown), grown from a cutting given to me by the late J.C. Raulston. Its vernacular name, Virginia sweetspire, inspired me to plant it close to the patio. I knew virtually nothing of the genus at the time. Just as one good novel will make you read an author’s entire body of work, this one plant led me to explore other Itea species.

‘Henry’s Garnet’ responded nicely to the full sun, rather dry position where I planted it, though I soon found that it would be equally at home in damp and shaded conditions. The midsummer flowers were indeed showy, though I was not overly impressed by their supposed perfume. It was not until early October that I began to realize the plant’s most valuable ornamental trait, the reason behind its selection by the late Mary Gibson Henry, a field botanist and proponent of American native plants. The leaves changed to brilliant shades of red and orange and remained intact and effective well beyond Christmas. More recent introductions include ‘Little Henry’ (a sport with a more compact growth habit) and ‘Long Spire’, ‘Saturnalia’, and the slightly pink ‘Sarah Eve’, all selections from nurseries within the species’s native range (New Jersey to Florida, west to Louisiana). Perhaps owing to their provenance, these have failed to perform as well as ‘Henrys Garnet’ in the Pacific Northwest.

It was not long after my introduction to I virginica that I acquired my first evergreen species, I. illicifolia, a native of China. It has had a long history of cultivation in the west, primarily as a wall shrub in the United Kingdom. Literature implies that this is a decidedly tender species, but in my 20 years of cultivating it, it has happily taken numerous episodes of single digit temperatures. I consider it one of the finest evergreen shrubs that I grow, with glossy green hollylike leaves and elegant 10-inch pendulous racemes of powerfully fragrant green flowers produced in late summer.

Itea yunnanensis and I. chinensis soon joined the ranks. Both are evergreen species and distinctly different in appearance; however, the validity of their names remains questionable. The former is a bold-foliaged plant with large, leathery oval leaves to eight inches and rather short axillary racemes of white flowers in midsummer. The latter is more finely textured, with pleasingly pale young leaves that soon turn a deeper green. I find both species worth growing, though I could not stand behind their names if challenged by someone more knowledgable than I.

I struggled with I. oldhamii and finally sent it packing to a warmer climate. Native to the southern islands of Japan and Taiwan, the foliage is dark green and leathery. The flowers on the clone I grew were rather stubby and without particular merit. It is probably better grown in the humid Mid-Atlantic states and southward.

For years, the deciduous I. japonica ‘Beppu’ was passed around horticultural circles of North America. This supposed dwarf form probably originated as an imported bonsai. However, it is I. virginica (in fact, I. v. ‘Henry’s Garnet’), that is the species of choice in Japanese horticulture. So, although I. japonica indeed exists throughout the woodlands of Japan, much of the material grown here under that name is simply our own native species.

The genus Itea has joined the ranks of numerous plant species that illuminate the shared flora of North America and eastern Asia. They provide a keyhole through which one can glimpse our geological past—or one can simply enjoy their sublime qualities in the garden.

OVERVIEW: Itea is a genus of deciduous and evergreen shrubs and trees native to eastern North America and northeastern Asia FAMILY: Iteaceae <

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