This shrub is 3-9' tall with ascending to arching branches. The bark of
the trunk or larger branches is gray to brown and slightly wrinkled or
fissured, while the bark of small branches is brown to red and smooth
with scattered lenticels (air pores). Young shoots are light green,
terete, and pubescent. Alternate leaves occur along the smaller
branches and young shoots. These leaves are 1½-3½" long and ½-1½"
across; they are broadly elliptic in shape and their margins are either
finely serrated or they have sparse minute teeth. The upper surface of
the leaves is yellowish green to green and glabrous, while the lower
surface is slightly more pale and usually sparsely pubescent along the
major veins. The petioles are up to ½" long, glabrous or pubescent, and
yellowish green, light green, or red. Leaf venation is pinnate. Upper
stems terminate in narrow racemes of flowers about 2-6" long. These
racemes can be erect, ascending, or drooping.
Each flower spans about
1/3" (8 mm.) across, consisting of a short open calyx with 5 shallow
teeth, 5 white petals that are linear-lanceolate, 5 stamens, and a
lanceoloid pistil with a single style. The calyx is light green to
yellowish green and pubescent, while the pistil
is yellowish green to white and pubescent. The pedicels are about
1/8" (3 mm.) long, light green or yellowish green, and short-pubescent.
The central rachis of the raceme is light green to brown and
pubescent. The blooming period occurs from late spring to early summer,
lasting about 3-4 weeks. The flowers are mildly to moderately fragrant.
Afterwards, the flowers are replaced by 2-celled seed capsules about ¼"
long that are lanceoloid in shape and become dark brown at maturity.
The base of each capsule is swollen by the persistent calyx. At this
time, the seed capsules split open to release their seeds. The chunky
seeds are 1.0-1.5 mm. long, 0.5-1.0 mm. across, and compressed
(somewhat flattened). The seed surface is dark and shiny. The root
system is woody and develops underground runners, forming clonal
offsets. The leaves are deciduous in Illinois, becoming bright red
during the autumn (see photo of Autumn
The preference is partial sun,
wet conditions, and soil that is muddy, silty, or sandy. Shallow
standing water is tolerated. This shrub has few problems with insects
or disease. Winter temperatures below -20°F can be fatal. This wetland
shrub can be used along rivers to reduce soil erosion.
The native Virginia Sweetspire occurs
Illinois, where it is uncommon (see Distribution
Elsewhere in the state, this shrub is
absent, except as a cultivated plant. Illinois lies along the northern
range limit of this species. Habitats consist primarily of floodplain
woodlands, margins of rivers and lakes, and swamps. With the notable
of Bald Cypress (Taxodium
) and Water Tupelo (Nyssa aquatica
this shrub colonizes areas that are too wet for most trees.
At the present time, very little information
floral-faunal relationships is available. The flowers are probably
cross-pollinated by bees, butterflies, and other insects. When this
shrub forms colonies, it provides nesting habitat for birds and
protective cover for both birds and other kinds of wildlife.
A garden at the Arboretum of the University of
Other common names of this shrub include Virginia Willow
and Tassel-White. In addition to the Escallonia family
(Mohlenbrock, 2008), this shrub is sometimes assigned to the Gooseberry
family (Grossulariaceae) and the Sweetspire family (Iteaceae). There
are no other Itea spp.
(Sweetspire species) in
North America. The closest relatives of this shrub are located in East
Asia. In Illinois, Virginia Sweetspire is quite distinct, but it can be
confused with other shrubs in the southeastern United States. An
a similar-appearing shrub is Clethra
(Sweet Pepperbush). This
latter species can be distinguished by its flowers, which have 10
stamens instead of 5, and by the golden yellow color of its leaves
during the autumn.