Itea (Itea virginica), also called Virginia sweetspire and Virginia willow, is a broadleaf shrub that may grow as a deciduous or evergreen, depending on where it is grown. It is known for its leaves that turn a crimson-burgundy color in the full autumn sun. In partial to full shade, the leaves sometimes turn a mixture of orange, scarlet and yellow.
Native to damp areas of the southern U.S. itea shrubs like rich, moist, slightly acidic soils but will adapt to neutral or alkaline soils.
Itea grows slowly in a rounded, upright form. At maturity it grows up to 6 feet tall and 6 feet wide. It spreads aggressively by stolons that run on top of the ground. Itea plants growing from these stolons can form a tangled colony of upright, branching stems. Itea can tolerate some wetness but its roots should not be allowed to sit in water. The shrub has no major problems with insects or disease.
Blossoms and Leaves
Itea's creamy white blossoms are 4 inches long and ½ inch wide growing on pendulous racemes that curve and droop. They look somewhat like bottlebrush. A raceme is a cluster of flowers with oldest blossoms on the bottoms and newest blossoms on top. The lightly scented flowers, thought by some to have a “woodsy” smell, attract butterflies. The elliptical medium to dark green leaves have small teeth at the edges. The leaves acquire their brilliant color in mid-September in most parts of the mid-South. This display usually lasts until November.
Young stems are green or light brown; gray-brown old stems are striated and have small buds. The young stems on the Henry’s Garnet cultivar are purplish red; they slowly change to shades of green, brown and red as they mature. Flower buds form on the previous year’s growth. Do not prune until the shrub has flowered.
The fall color of the itea is spectacular. Itea shrubs can be planted as part of a border of mixed shrubs or used in a woodland garden. The plant loses some of the brilliant color of its autumn foliage if it is planted in the shade. Iteas can be sheared to form a low hedge or planted in a restricted median strip between highways. Although its aggressive spreading can be considered a nuisance, that habit makes the itea a good cover for slopes requiring erosion control.