A great native shrub for Louisiana landscapes

Richard Bogren  |  4/7/2017 2:27:29 PM

By Dan Gill

LSU AgCenter Horticulturist

(04/07/17) The LSU AgCenter has chosen an outstanding native shrub as one of their Louisiana Super Plants selection for spring 2017. Henry’s Garnet Virginia willow (Itea virginiana Henry’s Garnet) is a native shrub that adapts very well to landscape cultivation and is reliable and easy to grow.

I encourage Louisiana gardeners to use plants native to the Gulf Coast region in their landscapes whenever possible. The Gulf Coast region includes east Texas, Louisiana, south Mississippi, south Alabama, south Georgia and the panhandle and upper peninsula of Florida.

The best reason is that it gives our landscapes a sense of place. Using plants native to our region links our landscapes to natural areas and the plants they contain. Native plants provide several benefits to the landscape:

– They bring interest, natural beauty and diversity to the landscape.

– They can play an important role in providing food for native pollinators and wildlife.

– They are well adapted to the Louisiana climate and are generally tolerant (not immune) of common pest problems.

– Finally, they simply provide a sense of satisfaction that many of us get by using native plants.

Not all native plants adapt well to typical landscape conditions, and some can be downright fussy about what they need to be happy. Virginia willow, also known as Virginia sweetspire, is not one of those. It is tough, easygoing and not at all demanding. It deserves to be planted far more commonly than it is.

Henry’s Garnet has a long and proven track record in Louisiana. It was introduced to the nursery trade by the Scott Arboretum of Swarthmore College in 1982. The original seedling was collected in Georgia by Josephine Henry and given to the arboretum for evaluation. Michael Dirr, a University of Georgia horticulturist, suggested the cultivar name the arboretum gave to this selection of Virginia willow. Henry’s refers to Josephine Henry and Garnet refers to Swarthmore’s school color (not the shrub’s fall foliage, as is often noted). All of the Henry’s Garnet Virginia willows are clones of this original plant propagated through cuttings and division.

While all Virginia willows make beautiful and reliable landscape plants, the Henry’s Garnet cultivar has two characteristics that set it apart. The flowers are slightly larger than the standard species, and the foliage turns an especially attractive shade of burgundy red in the fall.

Virginia willow is a naturally small-growing shrub, which makes it useful in a wide variety of garden settings. The height is just 2 to 4 feet (rarely 5 feet) with a spread of 3 to 5 feet. The shrub often “suckers” and slowly spreads to form a colony or small thicket.

Like many native shrubs, Virginia willow is deciduous. That is, it sheds its leaves during winter. But as noted earlier, before the leaves drop you get an outstanding burst of burgundy color in fall, generally in November.

In spring, right after the fresh green new leaves have grown out, 6-inch-long drooping spikes of fragrant white flowers appear. While not flamboyant, the floral display is delightful nonetheless and adds a soft note to the spring landscape. So, the Virginia willow provides two seasons of color: white flowers in spring and burgundy foliage in fall.

I’ve noted how adaptable Virginia willow is. This versatile shrub will thrive in full sun to part shade, although full sun locations generally produce the best burgundy fall color. It is not particular about soil – it will even do well in clay – or drainage. Indeed, it is one of the few shrubs that not only likes wet, soggy soil but also will grow just fine with good drainage.

The shrubs have a relaxed, informal appearance with slightly arching branches. I think Virginia willow looks particularly good when used in naturalistic areas or woodland gardens with light shade. This shrub can be massed for a shrubby ground cover effect or foundation planting. Virginia willow naturalizes well in wild areas and is also a good choice for wet locations such as low spots, rain gardens or pond and creek margins.

Henry’s Garnet Virginia willow is being promoted now while it is blooming and nurseries are more likely to have it in stock. Spring is a good time to get these shrubs planted – at this point, the sooner the better. Fall is also an excellent time to plant these hardy shrubs if you find them available.

Plant Virginia willows into beds that have been generously amended with organic matter. Incorporate 2 to 4 inches of organic matter (compost, aged or processed manure, composted soil conditioner) into the upper 8 to 10 inches of soil in the bed, rake the area smooth and plant. Be sure the root ball is planted so that the top is level with the soil of the bed. After planting, mulch with a couple of inches of your favorite mulch and water the bed thoroughly to settle the soil.

The Louisiana Super Plants program is an LSU AgCenter educational and marketing campaign that highlights tough and beautiful plants that perform well throughout Louisiana. Each spring and fall AgCenter horticulturists unveil a list of Louisiana Super Plants. They have a proven track record with many years of reliable performance in Louisiana landscapes or have gone through several years of university evaluations and observations. Look for these plants at participating local nurseries. Louisiana Super Plants are “university tested and industry approved.”

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Henry’s Garnet Virginia willow in bloom. Photo by Dan Gill/LSU AgCenter

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Henry’s Garnet Virginia willow in a massed planting. Photo by Dan Gill/LSU AgCenter

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Henry’s Garnet Virginia willow flowers. Photo by Dan Gill/LSU AgCenter

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