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Virginia Willows Perform Well In State Landscapes
By Norman Winter
Central Mississippi Research & Extension Center
Virginia willows, which are native to Mississippi, have received awesome reviews in Texas, North Carolina and Louisiana where they have been chosen as plant of the year.
You may know Virginia willows as the sweetspire or Virginia sweetspire. In addition to those names, selections like Henry's Garnet and Sarah's Eve may be available at your local garden center. Virginia willow is known botanically as Itea virginica. "Itea" is Greek for willow.
Although it is not a willow, its graceful habit and sweetly fragrant flowers will make it a natural for your woodland gardens and paths.
As this upright grower reaches its peak height of five-to-eight feet, the branches bend over in an elegant, graceful habit. The flowers, on superior blooming cultivars like Henry's Garnet, are white and four-to-six inches long with a sweet fragrance. They usually bloom in April and May.
The long, white flower spikes brighten up shady areas as clumps produce hundreds of blooms noticeable to all visitors in the vicinity.
You could ask where does Garnet fit into the name. All Virginia willows have handsome dark-green foliage until fall when it turns into striking shades of red-purple and burgundy. Henry's Garnet it not only superior in bloom, but the fall foliage is exceptional with its garnet-red color. The fall foliage is spectacular for a long time. In fact, fall colors may persist all winter in South Mississippi, while in colder zones, it will most certainly last until December.
The gorgeous clump-forming shrub has other excellent virtues. It is disease and insect resistant. It thrives in moist, heavy soils, yet has proven to thrive in heat and droughty conditions. It is considered evergreen with temperatures from 15 to 20 degrees and deciduous in colder climates and has proven to recover from temperatures as cold as minus 20 degrees F.
It forms additional clumps by spreading underground stems. It is not hard to keep in bounds or maintained. Pruning will help you develop the desired arching, mounding shrub look versus a thicket or briar appearance.
The ideal location would be in a naturalistic area where they receive morning sun and afternoon shade. They combine beautifully with azaleas from the satsuki group that bloom about the same time.
If you choose a shadier location, the growth habit will be more open and sparse, while in a full sun site it will be bushier and require more water. The best time to fertilize is late winter. Use a cup of a slow release 13-13-13 spread around evenly under mature plants.
With Henry's Garnet being chosen as a Louisiana Select winner, they have been a lot easier to find at garden centers. If your favorite garden center does not have them yet, they should have no problem locating a source. Henry's Garnet and other Virginia willows transplant easily from container-grown nursery stock. There are natives that deserve a place in the landscape.