Virginia willow, also called Virginia sweetspire and known botanically as Itea virginica, is a popular native shrub in Louisiana. Interest in this native shrub has increased in the past 10-20 years through the use of the Henry’s Garnet variety – the newest addition to the LSU AgCenter Louisiana Super Plants program for spring 2017.
“Henry’s Garnet is the most popular and best of the Virginia willow varieties with outstanding landscape vigor,” said LSU AgCenter horticulturist Allen Owings.
Foliage of Henry’s Garnet Virginia willow is especially handsome in fall when the leaves turn a brilliant deep red-purple and persist late into the season, Owings said. Plants are generally deciduous in some areas but are semi-evergreen in south Louisiana.
While Henry’s Garnet tolerates Louisiana’s wet and heavy soils, it also performs well in drier sites. In the wild, it is frequently found in locations that have moist soil, and Henry’s Garnet is now being used in rain gardens in commercial landscapes around the state.
Flowers are a major feature of Virginia willow, Owings said. Blooms are 4-to-5-inch white clusters – although some varieties have a pinkish tinge – and have moderate fragrance. Flowering occurs over a 4-to-6-week period in the spring right about the time azaleas complete their flowering. A dark green background or light shade of a woodland garden improves the flower display.
Virginia willows grow to 3 to 8 feet tall and have an equal spread, depending on the variety. Some plants may be slightly wider than tall due to clump-forming growth that begins after a couple years in the landscape. Prune any undesirable growth in the spring after flowering is completed.
Virginia willow is also adapted to a wide range of soil pH and can adapt to almost any soil type or drainage in a landscape. Even though they prefer a slightly moist soil, they are very drought tolerant. Morning sun with afternoon shade is an ideal planting location.
“Native plants deserve a place in your landscape, and Henry’s Garnet is one of the best,” Owings said. “It has nice flowers and nice foliage along with being site adaptable. What more can you ask for?”
Henry’s Garnet would work well in Louisiana landscapes paired with other Louisiana Super Plants, such as evergreen sweetbay magnolia, Conversation Piece azalea and Mrs. Schiller’s Delight viburnum, he said.
The Louisiana Super Plants program is an educational and marketing campaign of the LSU AgCenter that highlights tough and beautiful plants that perform well in Louisiana landscapes. Louisiana Super Plants have gone through several years of university evaluations or have an established history of performing well throughout Louisiana.
Louisiana Super Plants have a proven track record; they are “university tested and industry approved.” Homeowners and horticulture professionals alike can benefit from using Louisiana Super Plants to ensure successful landscaping efforts.
Louisiana Super Plants selections are widely available at garden centers in the area. For more information on the program and a listing of all plants go to the Louisiana Super Plants website – www.lsuagcenter.com/superplants.
Henry’s Garnet Virginia willow. Photo by Allen Owings/LSU AgCenter