As spring progresses I thought I would profile a plant seldom seen but definitely worth considering, Itea ilicifolia also called “Holly-leaved sweet spire”.Itea belongs to the Grossulariaceae to which Escallonia and Ribes also belong. There are fifteen species of Itea – fourteen from East Asia and one deciduous species from North America – Itea virginica. They are useful shade loving shrubs or small trees.
Itea ilicifolia as its name suggests has holly-like leaves. They are dark glossy green. The flowers are produced in abundance in narrow, pendulous, catkin-like racemes, up to 12″ (30cm) long. The flowers are tiny and densely packed; greenish-white in colour; and fragrant – a hint of honey scent. Flowering starts in mid summer and will continue well into autumn.
Itea ilicifolia was introduced by Augustine Henry from Yichang on the Yangtze in central China, in a package to Lord Kesteven who flowered it first in 1895. Bean mentions that the earlier introductions needed wall shelter at Kew. Whether more recent acquisitions such as the Ernest Wilson’s collection, are from a higher altitude, or whether global warming is being demonstrated here, as Itea ilicifolia is becoming a plant more of borders than needing wall protection nowadays. Wall shelter is nevertheless advised in colder and/or exposed situations in eastern counties. Rather lax in habit, Itea ilicifolia is most often grown and trained against a wall where the reflected heat encourages more flowers and better growth, although in warmer parts of the U.K., Itea ilicifolia grows to be a striking standalone plant.
Summer cuttings of the current years shoots can be taken about July or early August and placed in a sandy open compost in a cool frame – minimum 5° (40°F), damp, and in a well lit atmosphere, should root overwinter. It is widely available from nurseries.
An alternative would be Garrya elliptica the silk tassel bushThere is no doubt that Garrya can make a striking small bush and also has similar tassels.However when grown against a wall and requiring pruning to shape I fine the tassels are considerably reduced in numbers.Furthermore the leaves are not as clean and glossy. The main advantage of Garrya elliptica over Itea ilicifolia is that it will cope with north facing walls.