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On Gardening: Sarah Eve, stunning pink Virginia sweetspire

March 19, 2018

Little Henry is a dwarf or compact variety of Virgina sweetspire.

Sarah Eve is mesmerizing; it's the first pink selection of Virginia sweetspire. It was introduced by Woodlanders, Inc. in Aiken South Carolina but discovered by Nancy Bissett of The Natives Inc. in central Florida and named for her daughter. Woodlanders describes the flowers as white but with pink pedicels making the long dangling racemes or blooms look pink.

We planted it a few years when I was with the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens in Savannah. We placed it close to the entrance of the shade garden, and it has been stellar. When in bloom you’ll know from a distance that you are looking at a Virginia sweetspire that is something special. It reaches 4 to 5 feet in height with an equal spread.

If you have never grown a Virginia sweetspire also called Virginia willow, I would ask, why not? They are known botanically as Itea virginica and native from Texas to Illinois to Pennsylvania and southward to Florida. That is a vast area geographically, and they are cold hardy from zones 5-9. "Itea" is Greek for willow, and although it is not a willow, its graceful habit and sweetly fragrant flowers will make it a natural for your woodland gardens and paths.

To be honest I don’t think I have ever met a Virginia sweetspire selection or generic that I did not like. The award-winning Henry’s Garnet and Little Henry a compact version are-both dazzling in the landscape with their fragrant white flowers hanging downward in spires and bringing in the pollinators. Reports say Longspires has the longest blooms and Saturnalia even more sensational in fall color.

Virginia sweetspires usually bloom in April and May though I photographed Sara Eve in full bloom last March 14 in Savannah. The long, white or pink flower spires brighten up shady areas as clumps produce hundreds of blooms.

All Virginia willows have handsome dark-green foliage until fall when it turns into striking shades of red-purple and burgundy. I’ve seen Henry’s Garnet and Little Henry both flaming in fall color that persists for months, maybe all winter in the lower South.

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 drought conditions. It is considered evergreen with temperatures from 15 to 20 degrees and deciduous in colder climates and has recovered 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 the Encore azaleas late booming group like the pink Autumn Carnival or red Autumn Bravo.

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 balanced fertilizer around evenly under mature plants.

Spring is coming and now would be a great time to start searching out a source for your Sarah Eve or one of the other great selections of Virginia sweetspire like Henry’s Garnet or Little Henry. There are natives that deserve a place in the landscape, and the Virginia sweetspire is among the best.

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