Tuesday, May 25, 2010

What's in Bloom: VA Sweetspire aka Sideshow Bob

“It’s a shrub that looks like Sideshow Bob, you know, from the Simpsons.” That was me speaking recently, trying to describe the appearance of the Virginia Sweetspire (Itea virginica) in my front yard.

My description did not do it justice, but honestly that was the first thing that popped into my mind. The way the tendrils of creamy white flowers hang down makes me think of Sideshow Bob’s haircut. Only pretty.
My photo, shown left, does not do the sweetspire justice, either.

But trust me, this one is a winner.

Those flowers, which are the exact color of classic butter pecan ice cream, are magnets to early season butterflies and native bees. They are also a wonderful foil for my Jackmanii clematis, which blooms on the fence in dark purple abundance right behind the sweetspire in late May. There's a reason they call it sweet; the fragrance before a rainstorm is especially unbelievable.

Sweetspire is becoming more popular. Its resilience has prompted even the big box hardware stores like Home Depot to sell it. But I am sad when I see it used in parched, dry parking lot locations outside of shopping centers. This plant is definitely happiest when it gets a bit of extra water, which makes it great along the edges of rain gardens. Or, in wet places like the foot of the slope in my yard. At this spot, all of the rain water gathers and used to make messy puddles. It seems to suck all that excess water away quickly, and seems to enjoy a certain lush growth in this spot that the parking lot plants do not seem to share.

(Although this bush will not thrive in super dry parking lots, sweetspire will do quite well in dry lawns with average soil. In one spot in our yard it helps to mask an ugly power line. So although it will tolerate the extra water, it doesn’t *need* it. It does need adequate moisture, however, so hellishly hot parking lot just doesn’t seem like the best application.)

Sweetspire has three nice seasons of color, and is truly a four season shrub. In May, we have the already mentioned blossoms. In summer, the leaves fill in empty parts of the garden with lush green growth. In fall, those leaves turn an outrageously lovely red color before falling to the ground. When the winter’s chill comes on, the bare branches of the sweetspire turn a shiny, dark red which really stands out in the snow.

The downside of sweetspire is its tendency to sucker. The new shoots are easy to dig out and give to friends, but this shrub will easily over take your fertile urban meadow or perennial border. Again, a lawn with average to rich soil makes the ideal location; to keep the suckering in check simply mow the new shoots back and let it meet up with the grass edge.

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